Tuesday, May 29, 2007


Game, Set, Match

By Josh R
As a general rule, I try not to be unduly impressed by celebrity — or to be more accurate, celebrities. Stripped of the trappings of fame, they’re all just people — and some of them not terribly interesting people, at that. Take movie stars: the object of global adulation, when in encountered in person, may reveal himself to be little more than a short, none-too-bright fellow whose only distinguishing characteristic is a complete lack of insight on any subject not directly pertaining to The Church of Scientology (and I’m being generous when I refer to it as ‘insight’). Wake me up when he makes another movie worth watching.

I’m usually a pretty cool customer when I come into contact with famous faces, but I have my limitations — try as I might to be completely jaded, if I ever ran into Angela Lansbury on the street, I’d probably stop dead in my tracks and dissolve into a blubbering mass of jelly. To my way of thinking, this brilliant star of stage, screen and television is not, and never has been, just people. The first line of her Playbill bio informs us that the actress has “enjoyed a career without precedent.” If any other performer had used this phrase in reference to herself, it might smack of self-aggrandizement. In Ms. Lansbury’s case, it has the ring of plain, unvarnished truth.

If you haven’t already deduced as much, I’m a fan. Not of the binoculars-and-bedroom-shrine type that might merit obtaining a restraining order against … but with almost as little sense of proportion. It’s been a lifelong ambition of mine to see Ms. Lansbury live on Broadway, the site of many of her greatest triumphs. The good news is that, after an absence of more than 20 years from the stage, the legend has come home to roost. The bad news is that Deuce, the rickety vehicle that provides the occasion for her return, isn’t exactly equal to her talents. It’s a good thing Ms. Lansbury has acting muscle to spare, because she’s been given some heavy lifting to do.

Terrence McNally’s conspicuously underwritten new play considers the lives and legacies of a retired doubles tennis team, the fictitious Leona Muller and Margaret ‘Midge’ Barker. Reunited at The U.S. Open Championships, they recall their triumphs and disappointments, both personal and professional, as they watch a match from the stands. Old wounds resurface, new revelations come to light and conflicting versions of their shared history are debated and reconciled as they wait to be honored in a courtside tribute commemorating their careers. As a work of theater, Deuce is amorphous in structure — rather than having a beginning, middle and end, the play seems to consist entirely of meandering chatter, happening in fits and starts and seemingly bound for nowhere in particular. Its various thematic considerations — the plight of the elderly, the crass commercialization of professional sports, the strait-jacketing influence of sexism on the lives and legacies of a generation of pioneers — are picked over and discarded with the cursory capriciousness of an easily distracted child rummaging through his toy chest. The title of the play refers to a tennis term meaning stalemate — the point at which neither opponent has a clear advantage over the other. It’s apt in ways the playwright surely never intended — in the absence of any forward motion, the entire enterprise seems to be stuck in neutral. As a result, a premise with the potential to serve up a succession of scintillating rallies — with dazzling acrobatics worthy of Evert and Navratilova — feels more like an indifferently executed game of shuffleboard.

To be fair, the athletes are game. Even as the playwright veers uncertainly off course, Ms. Lansbury keeps her performance on track. Deuce actually does give her the chance to do some acting — something that the saccharine sleuthing series Murder, She Wrote neglected to do for the entirety of its 11 year run. With a vibrancy that belies her 80-odd years, the actress effortlessly commands the stage with the natural assurance that has always set her apart from the crowd — as a teenager on the MGM lot in the 1940s, she was already a strong enough presence to terrorize the likes of Ingrid Bergman, Judy Garland and Katharine Hepburn in a series of bad-girl roles which capitalized on her insolent pout and precocious manner. Sixty-odd years later, she’s just as canny and crafty a performer as she was stealing scenes as Gaslight’s slatternly housemaid; as one might expect, Leona is the more colorful of the two roles, and Lansbury embellishes McNally’s banal pronouncements with enough wit and spark to make them seem almost fresh. If her co-star, the estimable Marian Seldes, doesn’t fare quite as well in the role of Midge, it’s because the deck seems to be stacked more against her. Lansbury at least has some juicy lines to sink her teeth into — Seldes tries for quiet dignity and self-possession, which is counterproductive in a play that is nothing if not obvious (when McNally writes himself into a corner, he usually resorts to crude sexual humor to blast his way out of it). The interjections of a pair of vapid television commentators, played by Brian Haley and Joanna Adler, contribute little to the proceedings, although they do illustrate the limitations of the McNally’s tennis knowledge — the very notion of a doubles team having achieved the kind of legendary status attributed to them by the playwright is dubious at best. Neither does the presence of Michael Mulheren’s worshipful fan seem particularly necessary — when he instructs the audience to “take a good look” at the two women, since we “will never see their like again,” he’s not telling us anything we don’t already know.

Director Michael Blakemore does what he can to showcase the performances to good advantage, but fails to bring cogency to a text that lacks a sense of purpose. It’s possible that Deuce might have fared somewhat better in more intimate space — as it is, it can’t avoid seeming a bit dwarfed by the dimensions of The Music Box Theatre (Peter Davison’s set, while offering an ingenious representation of a tennis stadium, seems overscaled — the actors look a bit lost on it). Of course, the very presence of Ms. Lansbury required nothing less than the royal treatment, and it’s unlikely she’ll have much difficulty drawing capacity crowds for the remainder of the play’s limited run. She’s giving audiences their money’s worth — even if the play shortchanges them in the process.

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I wish I could have seen Lansbury on the stage, but I'm guessing that I'm better off for not having seen her in this one. At least I saw Seldes in a couple of things.

P.S.: Judy Garland fans are insane! The same group that tried to horn in on June Allyson's obit found your brief mention of her and wanted to use it as an excuse to promote their madness again and somehow they do it in a way that prevents me from deleting their comments, so I'm forced to employ comment moderation again. Where's an O.D. when you need it?
I wasn't dissapointed by her - she's great in it. It's the play itself that's kind of a wash-out.
EC: Where's an O.D. when you need it?

Here I come to save the day!!!!

Wait, did you mean Odie or an overdose? Aw crap.

(Odie slumps as he embarrassingly walks offstage, his superhero cape dragging the floor behind him in pity.)

Josh: Deuce actually does give her the chance to do some acting – something that the saccharine sleuthing series Murder, She Wrote neglected to do

She was too busy killing people on that show to act! Jessica Fletcher was killing everybody so she'd have mysteries to solve and write about! No one believes me until it's TOO LATE!!! This was Basic Instinct with an old lady! Think about it. If I saw her on the street, I'd run!

I DID see her in Sweeney Todd. I also saw her in the revival of Mame. She had a LOT less Vaseline on her than Lucille Ball did in that movie version...
I thought Jessica Fletcher was the killer too. I dreamt of writing the final episode where that was revealed. I also wanted to creat a character whose sole job was constantly repainting the population sign for Cabot Cove to a lower number.
EC: I thought Jessica Fletcher was the killer too. I dreamt of writing the final episode where that was revealed.

You should write that episode and submit it for the Murder, She Wrote reunion special! You can cross it with the film DOA. Jessica Fletcher has to solve her own murder--she's been poisoned with a slow action poison for which there is no antidote. She kicks the bucket before solving the case, but at her funeral, they show a video of her drinking the poison herself. "Yes, I did it!" she says triumphantly. "I killed me (pause) AND EVERYBODY ELSE IN THIS SEASIDE PEYTON PLACE!! HA HA HA!! My new book, Fletcher: You Can't Catch Her, is all about it!" Lansbury will get that Emmy for sure!
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