There are few things more tedious in tennis than to have a game stuck in endless deuce. But at least there's an element of suspense to hold the spectators interest. Would that that were true about 'Deuce,' a new play by Terrence McNally, but for the most part, it's just endless deuce without any advantage save the stars.
Thinking about the two fictional tennis greats in the play as we watch the French Open on television, many would commiserate with Leona, played by the incomparable Angela Lansbury, who missed the shot that caused her doubles team the Grand Slam so many years before. Why is it we never dwell on the successes, but obsess over the failures? Leona can't let go of it.
Her doubles partner, Midge, played by the regal Marion Seldes, assures her that it just wasn't meant to be, and it was their time to retire from the crowds. Sitting center stage, being honored at the U.S. Open for their contribution to women's tennis, they watch young women play a game they no longer recognize. "I liked it better when we had to wear white and never endorsed anything," says Midge. "It's not what it used to be," agrees Leona. "Players are all technique, not heart. Robots."
Try as they might to connect again as a team, and to tennis as it is played today, we know Midge and Leona will be stuck at "Deuce" forever. No Grand Slam, no match point remarks. With each "thwack" of the ball, and each turn of their heads -- right , then left, then right again -- we sit mesmerized by these two actresses talking to each other about tennis, family, loves, deaths, and everything that goes with lifeï¿½s grand matches, yet we are distracted -- we'd rather hear about their stage careers than listen to McNally's words.
These two are indeed living legends, with Lansbury, of course being the more famous of the two. She made her film debut in "Gaslight" in 1944, and after several more successful films, became a stage star in Sondheim's "Anyone Can Whistle." Her enduring fame was sealed with her television series, "Murder, She Wrote." But Lansbury hasn't been on the stage since she starred in the revival of "Mame" nearly 25 years ago, and it's wonderful to have her back home where she belongs.
Marian Seldes is not famous, yet to American theater audiences, she is royalty. Numerous guest appearances on television shows in non-recurring roles might make her recognizable to some, but she's never been in a blockbuster film. Yet she has every bit the stature of Lansbury, and the two of them together are magnetic.
Which is why McNally's play is so disappointing. It's a great concept seeing the new world order through the eyes of those that paved the way. They joke about "what becomes a legend most," and how they'll ultimately be remembered, but their conversation is pedestrian, even trite -- certainly not up to our expectations of McNally.
In the background, sharing the spotlight intermittently, are the moderators of the match on the court. Joanna Adler, as Kelly Short, and Brian Haley, as Ryan Becker, former athletes turned announcers, are simultaneously affable and obnoxious as their retelling of their own shining moments pale in comparison to the legends on the stage.
"Deuce" is not a Terence McNally masterpiece as are "Master Class" and "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune," but the casting is. If only the phenomenal talent onstage talked about their own careers instead of fictional tennis players, we'd then have "match point."
What the press had to say.....
BEN BRANTLEY of THE NEW YORK TIMES: ï¿½The true tension in 'Deuce' arises from the fight between two valiant, vibrant actresses against a swamp of a play that keeps trying to suck the life out of them. And even a director as assured as Mr. Blakemore, who has done so brilliantly by the plays of Michael Frayn, canï¿½t make us pretend otherwise.
JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ of NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: "Both Tony-winning actresses sparkle with the rarest of star power. But even that can't make Terrence McNally's pleasant but wafer-thin story anything more than it is - a coupla golden girls sitting around talking."
CLIVE BARNES of THE NEW YORK POST: " 'Deuce' should have been a grand slam at the Music Box Theatre last night. Instead it was a double-fault. And the double-fault was certainly not made by the actresses, for even the brilliant stereo sound effect of unseen bouncing tennis balls was far more impressive than the play itself, which our misguided heroines exuberantly bounced across."
JACQUES LE SOURD of the JOURNAL NEWS: "They (Lansbury and Seldes) are at the service of a play that is really a chamber exercise meant for a smaller theater, and a lesser cast. But then no one would care enough to sit through it."
MICHAEL SOMMERS of STAR-LEDGER: "McNally's slight piece about a pair of former tennis champs is scarcely any great shakes as drama, but it's pleasant enough. Viewers should expect an amiable 90 minutes with Lansbury and Seldes, each one charming in her own distinctive way."
ELYSA GARDNER of USA TODAY "Imagine a ring made of two precious gems set in pewter, and you'll have a sense of the immensely frustrating experience provided by Terrence McNally's 'Deuce' "
LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY: "There are definite pleasures in watching these beloved actresses trying to persuade us - and themselves? - to be fascinated and touched by the reunion of two aging tennis champions being honored at the U.S. Open. But it would be patronizing to these formidable women to pretend they don't seem wedged into a vehicle too flimsy for their muscle."
ROBERT FELDBERG of the RECORD: "You can't help but appreciate the professionalism of Lansbury and Seldes in 'Deuce.' Feelings about the playwright are another matter."
ERIC GRODE of the NEW YORK SUN: "Moldy new comedy about a storied women's doubles tennis team, has stumbled onto Broadway with the grace of a John McEnroe temper tantrum. This dispiriting waste of talent and time exists solely to let two grandes dames of the theater ...engage in the sort of banter and bathos that went out of style with 'The Gin Game.' "
JOHN SIMON of BLOOMBERG: "Sorely missing is a plot. Two women attending a tennis match might work as a snappy revue sketch; stretched out into an evening's entertainment it is both too much and not enough. "
MICHAEL KUCHWARA of ASSOCIATED PRESS: "Terrence McNally's 'Deuce' is a wisp of a play, more a conversation between two old friends than a full evening of theater. But if you are going to listen to two people talk, it helps to have the chatter delivered by the heavenly Angela Lansbury and the equally celestial Marian Seldes."
DAVID ROONEY of VARIETY: "Lansbury and Seldes turn the featherweight 'Deuce' into a game, set and match victory. "
External links to full reviews from newspapers