Thursday, August 9, 2007

Tennis, Anyone?

I saw “Deuce” last night at The Music Box. Terrence McNally’s play about a famous doubles team stars Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes. As a play, it’s pretty slight and not one of Mr. McNally’s best. Though other than Arthur Kopit’s hilarious “The Day the Whores Came Out to Play Tennis,” I’ve been hard pressed to call to mind another play about tennis.

What the play does is allow Miss Lansbury and Miss Seldes to work together for 90 minutes. We were sitting in the eighth row, and could see every sigh, every raised eyebrow, every emotion passing across a face. The subsidiary characters in the play interrupt the action between the two leading characters, which really gets wearing after awhile, but they also give the play its elegiac tone. I couldn’t help thinking that I will never see Miss Lansbury on stage again, which is sad to contemplate.

I grew up with the original Broadway cast recordings of “Anyone Can Whistle” and “Mame.” The first time I saw Miss Lansbury on stage was in “Sweeney Todd,” in that barn of a theatre, the Gershwin (then the Uris). It was the last night that she and Len Cariou were in it together, and it was absolutely mesmerizing, however far away our seats were from the stage. Miss Lansbury was in her late 50s then, and musicals are hard work at any age. When I was still acting, she was who I wanted to be when I grew up. Now, she’s 81, and who can blame the woman if she wants to retire and spend time with her grandchildren?

I’ve admired Miss Seldes since I saw her in the original production of Tony Kushner’s “A Bright Room Called Day.” That play was so much of its time (the first Bush administration), I have a difficult time imagining what a revival would be like, though I know they’ve been done. Set in Berlin in the early 1930s, the emotions it evoked were identical to those in the air in New York City. And Miss Seldes was somehow able to inhabit the play and its period, but simultaneously to let the audience see her in a completely contemporary light. I still don’t know how she did it, but it was chilling. Miss Seldes is such a fixture in New York theatre I can’t imagine her retiring, though she’s not much younger than Miss Lansbury.

At the curtain call, I stood up for the ovation. I rarely do that, because it’s usually completely unwarranted. But for those two ladies, who wouldn’t?

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