Reviewed by David Spencer
I wish it were enough to have two great ladies of the theatre simply sitting onstage and nattering on pleasantly via dialogue written for them (or people like them) by a playwright who may or may not be great, but has certainly written some great things, and I wish it was privilege enough just to be in their presence when they do, but you know, it's not, at least it isn't for me, and I suppose if you've never seen Angela Lansbury live, nor Marian Seldes (at the beginning of a run, when she's still fresh and revelatory, not mid-to-late when, despite being a famously gracious woman, her performance can attain a bewildering stridency), you might feel differently, but if you have, perhaps especially if you have, or even if you're just very familiar with their work on film and TV, my advice is to save your money and effort for a worthier endeavor, and if you've caught that this paragraph is all one sentence and started to wonder why I've written it thus, I'm not entirely sure, but I think it has to do with trying to keep my interest up as I write about Deuce, because I'm afraid if I actually type a period, it'll be more energy than I can dredge up to start a new sentence, Terrence McNally's new play is, uncharacteristically, that dull.
(Pause. Regroup. A swig of tea. Continue.)
The tone is set early, in Michael Blakemore's handsomely mounted but necessarily static production, as we hear, with stereophonic panning spectrum, a tennis ball being swatted from left to right and back again, seemingly ad infinitum, and the curtain rises upon our two stars, following the unseen ball with their eyes and heads, their gaze panning back and forth, back and forth. This is, alas, one of those unfortunate opening statements that, yes indeed, gives you an immediate symbolic shorthand as to the kind of ride you're on—which is, ideally, excellent stagecraft—but also telegraphs that the ride won't really go anywhere except to and fro.
Our grand dames of the theatre here play two grand dames of tennis, attending a world class match of two unseen but, as they swipe at the ball, sometimes heard young players who are now continuing the sport. When our retired veterans played, they did so as doubles partners until one (Seldes) quit before the other (Lansbury) was quite ready for her to do so, being unwilling to continue as a solo.
This unresolved tension may seem to have the potential to yield, oh, let's call it The Sunshine Girls (for those of you too young, I refer you to Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, about two retired vaudevillians), but it occupies only a portion of the conversation between them; most of which is taken up by remembrances and updates and swapped opinions about life, love, the condition of the world and the current state of tennis.
A respectful Admirer (Michael Mulheren) narrates a bit, later having a brief scene with them, two inane sportscasters high above (Joanna P. Adler, Brian Haley) comment on the game, the players and the honored special guests and maybe the piece just means to be a tone poem, there are after all other such encounters in theatrical literature, but even the best of those (I urge you to investigate, for example, Cold Storage by the too-long ignored Ronald Ribman) has at the center a collision of something, objective, philosophy, need, a basis for sustained dramatic tension, something, but no, not Deuce, which, like its title (as explicated in a program note) describes a tennis state of suspended animation, so to speak, a perpetual standoff in which the score remains equal, equal, equal, and suddenly I find I'm typing another run-on sentence for fear I'll never get the flow back.
(Pause. Regroup. A swig of tea. A bite of cookie. Continue.)
The performances of the supporting cast are perfectly okay. As for the stars: pretty much the same, in a way, not remarkable, at least not for them, yet because it is them, and one doesn't get to be a theatrical icon for nothing, delivered charismatically, with ease and style and great savvy. But despite that old clichˇ about how great stars can read the phone book and make it interesting, which is one of those clichˇs which was never true, because nobody's ever bothered to test it, the stars can't sufficiently infuse Deuce with convincing or urgent life, though it must be said, the audience gives them the respect of staying with it. And that, I suppose, is something.
I suppose, too, that one can leave this on an up note. Mr. McNally has written very well far more than he has written badly—mere weeks ago I was praising his other entry this season, Some Men—and he will no doubt write very well again. About half a year ago, I met one of my heroes, British television writer-producer Russell T Davies, and we chatted away about the new season, like the TV fanboys we are, and up came the topic of Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which had just debuted in the US, and which UK viewers were eagerly awaiting, having been rabid fans of The West Wing. "How is it?" Davies asked me, anticipation dancing in his inflection. I kind of drew in my lips, shook my head and told him sadly that it was disappointing.
"Ah well, too bad," Davies sighed. Then, just like that, he brightened and with the boundless enthusiasm that is perhaps his dominant characteristic, added, "But—we have to forgive the Great Man his one misfire, don't we?"
Indeed we do, all of our great men and women, even the ones who occasionally fly near greatness, whenever the sentiment applies. Words to remember, next time one who has served us well fails to make the serve...