A certain number of patrons settling into their seats at the Music Box Theater, where “Deuce” has just opened, after playing a healthy string of preview performances before wildly enthusiastic audiences, are clearly under the impression that they are about to witness a two-character play in which a pair of beloved veteran stars play former tennis greats, reunited after a lengthy separation to watch a match being played by rising female court stars.
Although Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes do sit side by side for an intermissionless 90 minutes, each of them rising to a standing position only once, and then very briefly, “Deuce,” whatever its textual shortcomings may be, is vastly more that a conventional two-character play.
McNally’s play marks the return to the stage of the 8l-year-old Lansbury after an absence of something over two decades, with the seemingly constantly employed Seldes matching her volley for volley and serve for serve.
The production, brilliantly devised by the top-drawer director, Michael Blakemore, is, despite its apparent simplicity, actually a fiendishly complicated affair,with a technically detailed tennis match, which has to be acceptable to audience members familiar with the sport, going on in and beyond what would normally be the theater’s orchestra pit.
There are, in fact, five characters in “Deuce.” In addition to the seated stars, there are a pair of television play-by-play reporters covering the match, served up wittily, and with tongues nicely implanted in their cheeks, by Brian Haley and Joanna P. Adler.
Like the stars, the TV pundits are seated from start to finish, with the result that the only really mobile individual in the play’s five-actor venture is a nameless character referred to only as “An Admirer,” warmly and wisely delivered by Michael Mulheren, who stood out as one of the singing gangsters in director Blakemore’s Tony-winning revival production of “Kiss Me, Kate” a few seasons back.
The event, however, lands precisely where it belongs, namely in the laps of the ladies whose names and whose photographic images loom above the play’s title outside the theater.
Midge Barker, Seldes’s character, and Leona Mullen, Lansbury’s assignment, were tennis greats in the days when pure white tennis togs were mandatory and participation by female athletes was rigorously limited.
Interwoven with all the accurately explored tennis lore are extremely credible portraits of two charismatic and complicated women whose glory days are well behind them, women who have learned, by long experience, to deal, to one degree or another, with the lives they have led, and with what remains to them.
Midge Barker, born and raised in privilege in New York City, and Leona Mullen, a working class girl from Pittsburgh, were tennis partners without ever quite becoming friends, at least not in the lasting sense of the word.
When they are reunited for a celebration at which they will be honored, probably but not necessarily at the unnamed Forest Hills facility, Barker and Mullen haven’t seen or spoken with each other in years. Mullen has been, we are informed by the “Admirer,” living with a second husband in Tucson, Ariz., while Barker has retired to a quiet life in Blue Harbor, which her former partner refers to dismissively as “some backwater in Maine.”
Midge Barker and Leona Mullen were, to be sure, tennis aces, but, for all intents and purposes, they might almost as easily have been golfers, or, with a stretch, roller derby queens.
Both are given what might be called “interior monologues,” in which each of them comments on their shared history, without her former partner hearing her comments. Mullen comments that Barker has aged more gracefully than she herself has, or, as she puts it, “Midge has grown much more beautiful with the years. That happens to some women.”
Hearing the beloved Lansbury say those words, it’s virtually impossible not to think of the degree to which they apply to both of the stars of “Deuce.”
When the excellent Mulheren speaks the play’s final lines, it’s just as difficult not to be struck by the truth they convey. “Look at them,” he says. “This time really look. You will not see their likes again.”