EmptyMusic Box Theater, New York
Through Aug. 19
It's hard to imagine what induced Angela Lansbury to choose "Deuce" for her long-awaited return to Broadway. Terrence McNally's play about two retired female tennis players shooting the breeze while watching a U.S. Open match marks the legendary actress' first appearance on the Great White Way in nearly a quarter-century, but despite Lansbury and co-star Marian Seldes' terrific work, the playwright never gets the ball over the net.
The veteran actresses star as Leona Mullen and Midge Barker, two former doubles tennis champs who have reunited after 10 years in order to accept an accolade for their achievements. Their heads swiveling constantly while they watch the action before them -- Paul Charlier's sound design makes the pinging of the tennis balls all too real -- they chat about their careers and personal lives, occasionally letting their guard down to reveal past resentments.
Mostly, though, they chat in innocuous fashion, comparing the current players to the past champions, commenting on the game, etc. Character development is sketchy at best: Lansbury's Leona is earthy and direct, having come from a working-class Pittsburgh background, while Seldes' Midge is reserved and aristocratic.
Periodically interrupting their conversation are two inane television personalities (Brian Haley, Joanna P. Adler) delivering vacuous commentary, and a fawning fan (Michael Mulheren) whose elaborate verbal tributes are no doubt meant to apply to the actresses as well as their characters.
Indeed, the distinguished stars don't disappoint. Lansbury, looking far younger than her 81 years, has lost none of her stage sharpness, delivering every line of dialogue and nonverbal reaction with precise comic timing that garners more laughs than the play deserves. Not surprisingly, Seldes matches her point for point, and the theatrical volleying is a pleasure to watch even when the playwright resorts to such obvious humor as having his elderly, dignified characters use the most vulgar of obscenities.
Director Michael Blakemore has provided a slick, seamless staging that makes excellent use of video projections and nifty sound and lighting effects. It's too bad that his efforts, and those of these two great actresses, have been expended on such a flimsy enterprise.
Presented by Scott Rudin, Stuart Thompson, Maberry Theatricals, the Shubert Organization, Roger Berlind, Debra Black, Bob Boyett, Susan Dietz and Daryl Roth
Playwright: Terrence McNally
Director: Michael Blakemore
Set designer: Peter J. Davison
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Lighting designer: Mark Henderson
Video and projection designer: Sven Ortel: Sound designer: Paul Charlier
Leona: Angela Lansbury
Midge: Marian Seldes: Kelly: Joanna P. Adler
Ryan: Brian Haley
An Admirer: Michael Mulheren