Angela Comes Home

Angela Comes Home Angela Lansbury makes a welcome return to Broadway in Terrence McNally's Deuce.
Angela Lansbury in Deuce.
Angela Lansbury in Deuce. Photo by Joan Marcus

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Angela Lansbury reached these shores on Aug. 24, 1940 — the same day I did. She arrived from blitz-battered London; I came from natural childbirth. "Think of me as your American hourglass," I suggest when our paths finally cross for a sit-down interview in her handsomely appointed apartment in the West 50s.

"Oh, my goodness!" she gasps at this sand-shifted figure before her. Then, like a proper, politely turned-out Brit, she hastily adds, "Well, you look wonderful for your age. I’m 15 years older than you." (Balderdash! This is Younger Than Springtime talking, with a lilt.)

We don't pause to do the math but press on to non-numerical matters. Like Deuce, where she's hardly acting her true age — just acting, thank God, eight shows a week. Deuce, in the non-numerical sense of the word, is a tennis term in which a game extends to a tie score of 40 or more and one player or side must score two successive points to win the game. It is also the title of a Terrence McNally play that director Michael Blakemore installs May 6 (the opening night) at the Music Box Theatre for a limited 18-week run, with Lansbury and Marian Seldes.

"It's the story of two elderly women who were the women's tennis doubles champions of the world 35 years ago," illuminates La Lansbury. "They are retired and have gone their separate ways, but now they have come back to be sort of recognized, shall we say, at a huge tournament at some place like Flushing Meadows. They are going to be introduced to the audience, and this will be the first time that they have really sat down together. "The play is about age — about becoming old and not being in the mainstream in the world of tennis today. They're constantly comparing how they played prior to Billie Jean King's absolutely valiant effort to bring women's tennis into the pro game. Women didn't make any money at the game until the late '60s–early '70s, and these two women did suffer. They made a little, but it was always under the table. They never got the big prizes. So the play is a metaphor for age and the problem that women have with old age."

Clearly, Younger Than Springtime is talking about somebody other than herself and will truly have to buckle down to make this portrayal stick. "Well," she says, laughing away the compliment, "I've never said to myself, 'I'm old. I'm an old woman.' Occasionally, I do as a joke, but I don't feel old — and I don't believe Marian does either.

"We're in a business where we're allowed to keep working. In the theatre. Not in the movies, and not in television — but that's all right. Bye-bye to those. We are now in the form which suits us best because theatre is illusion. We can give the appearance of being 40 years younger — with good lighting and costuming and makeup. That's what's so marvelous about theatre. I hope it will always be that way. That's why I'm awfully comfortable coming back to theatre. It is make-believe."

A circle of sorts has been completed: Her first home-away-from-home, New York City, has become her current home-away-from-home. Broadway is just the cherry on top of the sundae. "I really and truly had no idea of coming back to Broadway," she confesses. "I just wanted to have an apartment in New York. There is so much to see, hear and do, and I've never had a chance before — because every time I'd been here in the past I'd always been working eight performances a week, and I vowed I wouldn't do exactly what I'm doing. The only reason I'm doing it is it's a limited run — and I couldn't resist Terrence's play. It's a marvelous vehicle for two ladies."

Lansbury didn't linger long her first time in New York when she was 15. The family went west to seek their fortunes in films. By the time she was 18 — in fact, the day she turned 18 — she was lawfully enjoying a sexy cigarette with Charles Boyer on camera as his tarty housemaid in "Gaslight." She got Oscar-nominated for that, for holding her own with heavyweights Boyer, Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten. She was also nominated the next year as Dorian Gray's love sacrifice and in '62 again as the manipulative, maniacal mommy of Laurence Harvey — her junior by three years! — in "The Manchurian Candidate" ("I hope that's the movie I'm remembered for").

Three nominations in 63 years of features, and no little-gold-man cigar. Twelve years of "Murder, She Wrote," and not an Emmy to her name. Happily, Broadway knew what to do with her: She became the only musical performer to win four Tonys as a lead — for Mame, Dear World, Gypsy and Sweeney Todd.

"Yes, this town has been more of a home to me," she readily admits. "My husband [the late Peter Shaw] and I were very, very happy here. We never intended to go back to Los Angeles. The thing that took us back was when we made the definite decision for me to go to TV. I hadn't really, seriously tried to do television. I was afraid of burning myself out in it, and I was right. 'Murder, She Wrote' nailed me as Jessica Fletcher. The only place I can get away from Jessica Fletcher is on Broadway."

Since her return to New York, she has glittered up quite a few Broadway openings. Stars of her rarefied MGM pedigree are hard to come by, so she's treated reverentially by press and public alike. "It's a wonderful feeling, that sense of acceptance. I'm very aware of it, and it buoys me up, because let me tell you something: I'm as nervous as a kitten about what I'm going to be doing. I don't assume anything. Every time you go out the gate in this business, you have to prove yourself — and now I have to do it once more."