Great Match, Ill Served: Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes in Deuce

Well, I had been given ample warning. About Deuce, I mean, the Terrence McNally play starring American Theater Hall of Famers Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes. Reviewers and friends uniformly panned it. Not content to take their word for it, I set out to see for myself, only to confirm that Deuce truly is an insipid trifle of a play, a plotless, actionless one-acter whose greatest offense is its squandering of talent: two captivating leads let down by a leaden script and reduced to longshots by an extravagant set on the large stage of Broadway’s Music Box theater.

That set—the impersonal space of a tennis stadium filled with electronically simulated spectators (or spectres)—echoes and amplifies the hollowness of the production, but appears to have been designed (by Peter J. Davison) to give audiences certain to tire something to look at or look out for—as if Lansbury and her accomplished co-star weren’t reason enough to head out for the theater. They aren’t, if onlookers cannot zoom in on and get close to these two, as is warranted and promised by the potentially intriguing premise, the opportunity to eavesdrop on a private exchange between two celebrities dragged out of retirement and forcefully reunited for a belated tribute.

Their talk, however ably delivered, is devoid of anything amounting to revelations. They are long-ignored and finally acknowledged tennis legends who (surprise!) happen to be real women with long personal histories and strong opinions—opinions shared in lines so insipid that the playwright felt obliged to spice them up with profanities in hopes of getting spectators to stir, gasp and guffaw at expressions supposedly too vulgar to escape the mouths of our venerable elders.

You know you are faced with a dramatic dud when you open the Playbill to discover that even leading lady Lansbury struggles to give it to you in a nutshell too rotten to contain much good: “The play is about age—about becoming old and not being in the mainstream in the world of tennis today.” Who is the target audience? Martina Navratilova? Then again, it is also a “metaphor for age and the problem that women have with old age.” Like finding good parts, I suppose.

The gimmick of the play (and it is little more than that) is the juxtaposition of the real women behind the legend with the shallowness and vanity of the television sportscasters prattling overhead like a pair of false gods, a vapid chat (reminiscent of the characters created, to far better effect, by Christopher Guest in mockumentaries like Best in Show and For Your Consideration) in contrast to which the play offers next to nothing.

Deuce might be better served on radio, which is the ideal medium for intimate talk and character studies. Radio plays do not suffer from a lack of action or circular construction, from being anecdotal and fragmentary. Radio theater, which does not lose sight of its actors on enormous sets, is well suited to the conveying of an impression (a sense of dread, say) or the imparting of an idea. On the stage that sort of thing or nothingness is a deucedly bad one.

Now, I don’t care whether I’ll ever get to see another play by Mr. McNally (whose rather more amusing, if similarly trifling Love! Valour! Compassion!, starring Nathan Lane, I saw back in 1995). I do mind, however, that this might have been my last chance to see Ms. Lansbury on the stage. As a swansong, Deuce is tantamount to Trog.

Some fifty years prior to her nonetheless Tony award nominated performance in Deuce, Lansbury played a retired stage actress on radio’s “outstanding theater of thrills,” Suspense,” in a melodrama titled “A Thing of Beauty” (29 May 1947). A woman willing to kill for a good part or to forge an alliance with someone she does not respect, she ends up having, quite literally, lost face. Now, there’s a metaphor!

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