nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 8, 2007
Sometimes I absolutely love my job. Deuce allowed me to spend nearly two hours in the company of two of the world's most accomplished and intelligent actresses. The evening is not merely a matter of stargazing (though it is certainly that); no, the brilliance emanating from Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes on the Music Box stage isn't just megawatt personality but spectacularly well-considered, beautifully wrought acting. As a character in the play says of the two characters they portray here (a legendary doubles tennis pair), we will not see their like again. So go see them now.
Lansbury plays Leona Mullen; Seldes plays Midge Barker. In the 1960s and early 1970s—before, significantly, the advent of the Women's Tennis Association and its concomitant more lucrative career rewards—these two were among the world's best and most celebrated tennis players. A doubles team par excellence for decades, they retired in their late 30s and went on to lead separate lives (Midge, daughter of Park Avenue glitterati, retired to Maine; Leona, of working class Pittsburgh stock, coaches tennis in Arizona, where she lives with her second husband).
Deuce finds them at their first reunion in more than ten years, at the U.S. Open in Forest Hills where they've been brought in as guests of the WTA. In between matches today, Leona and Midge will be briefly feted. We watch them as they wait for their moment back in the spotlight, as they catch up with one another, reminisce about old times, and sort through assorted regrets, recriminations, and anxieties.
Playwright Terrence McNally and his two leading actresses create remarkably complicated women for us. Midge is the quiet and refined one, except she's also the one more prone to talk about what's really on her mind; she thought of herself, in her tennis-playing days, as the plain member of the duo, but now she knows that time has caught up with her innate style and elegance. Leona, on the other hand, is the coarse and outspoken one, except underneath she's insecure and afraid of aging and still deeply in love with the memory of her first husband, who died right around the time she and Midge gave up tennis. What's great about these women—and their portrayals by Seldes and Lansbury—is that they're unblinkingly real: they refuse to be summed up in an adjective or two the way sitcom characters can be; instead, they've got admirable qualities and inescapable flaws; they look back on their lives with deserved pride and unabashed regret.
The two actresses invest these women with humanity to spare. Seldes makes Midge mannered and a bit aloof, but isn't afraid to let us see what's underneath. Lansbury's Leona is a firecracker, but the vulnerability under the surface is frequently evident. Both can throw away a comic quip with Olympic-stopwatch timing; and both can find ways to surprise the audience with the subtlest of gestures to reveal something new and unforeseen about their characters. I was riveted the entire time, and literally hoped that the evening wouldn't end—that's how rich and rewarding these performances are to witness.
But McNally's play must not be slighted! Deuce, on the surface a distaff Sunshine Boys, covers a great deal of valuable ground in its 100 or so minutes' running time. Without ever getting polemical or falling back on obvious cliches, the playwright talks about perceptions of aging (by both those going through it and the younger ones looking at them), inequities between men and women, the commercialization and mass marketing of sports (and the so-called progress that's commensurate with that), racism, and homophobia. On that last point, Deuce is especially eloquent: there's a moving sequence in which Midge talks about how she refused to even be seen with a known lesbian player back in the '60s, for fear of jeopardizing her reputation. After recounting this story, Midge looks to Leona for some empathy, but none is forthcoming: We were complicit in that societal prejudice, Leona tells her, and Midge has to agree. It's good to know that a play with a conscience can still make it to Broadway in this Legally Blonde world of ours.
McNally also offers some pointed barbs about modern media, in the persons of the two TV sports commentators who are covering the event (Brian Haley and Joanna P. Adler portray these two empty-headed, self-obsessed celebrity announcers, and each nails his/her target). And there's also a gentler and more personal perspective on celebrity provided by a middle-aged man, known simply as "An Admirer," who asks Midge and Leona for their autographs. McNally meditates here on what makes some people extraordinary and worthy of our worshipful gaze. Coincidentally or not, with Lansbury and Seldes on stage to embody it, this idea becomes perhaps the most fundamental one in a play that's surprisingly chock full of content.
Michael Blakemore's production is elegant, flawless. Peter J. Davison (sets), Mark Henderson (lighting), and Sven Ortel (video/projections) provide an environment for the play that neatly juxtaposes Leona and Midge's current world with the larger one that they've been invited to visit today; it's use of levels and shifting focus felt quite innovative to me. Ann Roth's costumes, meanwhile, suit the characters to a "T."
Deuce is not going to be remembered as McNally's greatest play, but it's one of the best new dramas of this particular season. For me, it's the most fulfilling theatre event of the year, one I will cherish and that I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to see.