It’s standard-issue benevolence, with both theater critics and fans, to describe thesps who continue working long after they receive their AARP cards with terms like “national treasure” or “theater royalty,” or with adjectives such as “cherished” or “beloved.” Cliche or not, that language is unavoidable when confronted with the redoubtable team of Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes, bringing their wit, wisdom and ineffable class to Terrence McNally’s slender trifle, “Deuce.” The comedy began life as a playlet written for a benefit and, even as a 95-minute one-act, shows its stretch marks. But anyone with a deep affection for the theater won’t want to miss these rare birds bantering.
Directed with brisk economy by Michael Blakemore and stylishly designed by Peter J. Davison with a useful assist from Sven Ortel’s video and projection designs, the play transports us to a massive stadium where a U.S. Open tennis match is in progress. Watching from the stands, their heads oscillating back and forth with every thwack of the ball, are retired tennis pros Margaret “Midge” Barker (Seldes) and Leona Mullen (Lansbury), the most famous doubles team in the history of women’s tennis.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Quiet please. Players are ready,” says an offstage umpire at the start of the play. The line appropriately follows one of the most thundering rounds of entrance applause in recent memory, which greets the two stars seated centerstage (where they remain almost for the duration) when the lights come up.
Relics of the more genteel era of wooden-racket tennis, long before power volleys, fake turf and lucrative merchandising deals were a factor (“She endorses things,” says Midge, turning up her nose at one of the players on the court), the two women are also throwbacks to a time when professional sports was still more about love and personal glory than celebrity and wealth. Retired for more than 30 years, their bond reduced to exchanging Christmas cards and the occasional phone call, Midge and Leona have reunited to be honored at the end of the match.
The odd-couple scenario has been shaped by McNally along the not so illustrious lines of 1980 two-hander “A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking,” of which this is an old-gal variation. It’s a two-character study, expanded via the addition of some functional extras — two athletes-turned-sports-commentators (Brian Haley, Joanna P. Adler), who supply droll vocal shtick and historical background from an elevated box, and one entirely superfluous reverential fan (Michael Mulheren), who keeps appearing to articulate self-evident subtext about why these women deserve our admiration.
Of course that appreciation extends even more to the seasoned actresses onstage than to the characters they’re playing, and Lansbury and Seldes earn every ounce of it. Each has her own soignee specialty that helps coax a nuanced character with heart out of thin material. Lansbury can floor us with an eye roll or a subtle double-take, turning mildly clever lines into acerbic zingers with apparent nonchalance. Seldes can communicate internalized feeling with just a slight modulation of her voice or a quiet gesture.
Ann Roth has costumed the two stars in senior chic — Seldes in the crisply turned out style of a modest woman who’s just the right side of matronly; Lansbury in the elegant red suit and smart handbag of a more self-conscious creature, with money and more than a hint of vanity. Midge was a serve specialist and Leona an aggressive net player, mirroring their respective appearances of conservative poise and flashy high style. But the characterizations accrue steadily deeper shadings.
Straight-talking Leona wants to avoid rehashing the past while Midge is anxious to air unresolved issues between them. As their running commentary on the game gets more personal, it emerges that Leona blames herself for the double fault that cost them the Grand Slam one year during a decisive game in the Australian Open, while Midge wants only to show that no forgiveness is required. But these revelations aren’t enough to constitute an emotional catharsis.
Likewise, unless you count the calculated shock of first Lansbury and then Seldes saying the “c” word (the one that rhymes with “blunt”), there’s not a lot of action to speak of. But even when the play dips into dull patches, there’s the consistent satisfaction of watching two bona fide stage stars doing what they do with effortless aplomb.
The characters reflect on everything from the commercialization and spectacle-ization of sport, with its surrounding media circus, to the ephemeral nature of fame, from feminism and lesbians in tennis to being a team player vs. a solo star. Naturally, there’s time given to more commonplace issues regarding old lovers and husbands, friendship and marriage, aging, health and approaching death.
More amusing than funny, this might not be McNally’s most ambitious writing and it stretches the competitive tennis-as-life metaphor until it all but snaps. But both the playwright and Blakemore make no mistake about where their assets lie. To stick with the overworked metaphor, Lansbury and Seldes turn the featherweight “Deuce” into a game, set and match victory.