PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Deuce — Seems Like Old Times

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Deuce — Seems Like Old Times The Star decreed that it would be an old-fashioned opening night so, after Terrence McNally's Deuce had done its 95-minute stuff, first-nighters poured out of the Music Box on May 6 and, cutting-the-butter through Shubert Alley, made their way to Sardi's.
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That's how they used to do it when Angela Lansbury was a luminous presence on The Great White Way so it seemed fair and proper that she opted to share her sentimental comeback — return — actually, homecoming — with Broadway's perennial watering-hole.

Sardi's certainly took to the spotlight and, like said Star, rose triumphantly to the occasion, putting out an excellent spread and tending to the overflow crowd with speed and efficiency. Managing partner Max Klimavicius and dining-room manager Sean Ricketts (grandson of the late Vincent Sardi Jr.) rode herd over a full complement of waiters, bartenders and bus boys, and the customers brought their own buoyancy.

"We're having a great time doing this," Klimavicius yelled out during one of his mad dashes to the kitchen, relapsing into his original Sardi's role of restaurant "expediter."

Truth to tell, two floors of Sardi's made for pretty cramped conditions — but it also added to the jubilant bustle. All of paparazzi commotion — TV cameras, print interviews, photo ops — were, hectically and hastily, confined to the "Honeymooners" bar area at the front entrance where Jackie Gleason would tie one on before his Take Me Along matinees.

The main dining area was opened up so that what tables remained were next to the walls and strictly reserved. But the crowd adapted to the inconvenience quite nicely. Some ate while standing up. The lucky ones snagged a banquette and ate in their laps. There was no place for pride. No one had any intention of leaving the area, for fear of missing the great Sardi's tradition of The Star Entrance when the audience, as if it hadn't already applauded quite enough at the first and final sight of The Star, got to say thank you all over again. "Did you hear that applause when the curtain went up tonight?" Doris Roberts said, rushing excitedly up to The Hollywood Reporter's and Turner Classic Movies' Robert Osborne. "It said 'Welcome back.' That's what it was saying. 'Welcome back.'"

Lansbury has been away from Broadway for two dozen years, out on that other coast making a household name for herself in TV's "Murder, She Wrote," well-removed from the medium that made her such a lustrous star. She is still the only performer to win four Tony Awards for Best Actress in a Musical, and, from the look of Deuce, she appears to be going back for a fifth prize, working a cappella with McNally's words and no music.

She and the no-less-beloved Marian Seldes comprise the title role (it is also a sports term for a kind of tennis overtime). Leona "Lee" Mullen (Lansbury) and Margaret "Midge" Barker (Seldes) are a pair of pioneering women's tennis doubles champions, reunited for a tournament tribute after going their separate ways into a slowly sinking sunset. As they watch "kids today" play the sport they defined and refined, old regrets start to surface.

The play is an excuse for some intense acting tennis by a couple of seasoned pros, and both actresses respond with star turns. The crackingly funny Seldes is not Lansbury's second fiddle or even her first violin but a classy scrapper on equal footing. What with Frost/Nixon down the block, West 45th is becoming the street of over-the-title face-offs.

"I would think that's two starring performances," producer Scott Rudin said when asked if Seldes might be entered as Featured Actress rather than risk a split Tony vote. "I have no idea. I haven't even thought about it. We're all just getting through tonight right now."

The last thing he needs is another contender in the Best Actress category. He already has Vanessa Redgrave in The Year of Magical Thinking positioned at the Booth directly across the street from the Music Box, locked in a stare-out with the ladies from Deuce.

When complimented on her performance, Seldes deflected it back to her starring partner. "Yes, but look how generous she is," she countered, proving Lansbury hasn't entirely cornered the market on graciousness. "When I was told on the phone I'd play it with her, it was such a beautiful piece of music. Did you ever have the feeling you have to prepare yourself for it not being true when you hear something that good? That's what I felt.

"Then, there was Michael Blakemore [the director] — he got that performance out of me, he dug it out of me — and then the production. This whole thing has been like a dream."

On top of everything else, Seldes strutted through the play a glamorous presence, thanks in large measure to a wig by Paul Huntley. "I read the script and knew exactly what I wanted for Marian's character," Huntley admitted. "Of course, you don't touch Angela's hair." The Star looked like the Lansbury of old in her trademark-y close-cropped 'do.

Both actresses wore the unmistakable sign of relief. Despite an impeccable performance, they endured a night of nerves and seamlessly overcame one misstep along the way. The opening-night performance ran four pages shorter than the script actually would have it.

The inestimable Blakemore, who has the distinction of winning two directing Tonys in a single season (for Copenhagen, a drama, and Kiss Me, Kate, a musical), shot down the rumor, prevalent during previews, that the ladies were laden with a lot of rewrites.

"No, they weren't," he said simply. "I suggested to Terrence — because his method is to rewrite a lot — that we can't do that with actresses at this stage in their careers. 'They have these huge parts. They're going to have their time cut out for them memorizing the lines. We can't mess about.' So, he indeed didn't. There were some rewrites, some cuts — but their stuff is more or less the stuff we started rehearsing with. However, he did rewrite a lot around them. The other three roles were extensively rewritten, but not the stars.'"

Michael Mulheren, a Tony contender for brushing up his Shakespeare in Blakemore's Kiss Me, Kate, lost one whole character in the revision. "I played a vendor at one point in previews," he recalled. "The only reason I liked it was that it increased my stage time with Angela, but it really didn't move the story forward so they decided to cut it. Terrence was nice about it. He came to me and apologized, but I thought it was better for the play."

The role that remains for him is that of an adoring fan of the two elderly tennis stars. He also serves as an in-and-out narrator who provides introductory notes on the duo and their sport, and, at one point, even intrudes on the ladies to get them to sign an autograph book he inherited from his father (a device that allows McNally to drop the names of Great Women Tennis Stars of the Past — all the real McCoy, by the way). More importantly, Mulheren gets to deliver the eloquent curtain line that hits the audience right in the heart.

The other two roles — a TV sportscasting team — come and go as well, providing footnotes where needed. Brian Haley is given to pompous, narcissistic riffs, and Joanna P. Adler gets knowing chuckles with a hollow laugh. The two showed the wear-and-tear of rewrites.

"Y'know, Joanna actually mentioned it after we were done tonight, that 'Hey, that was our Broadway premiere,'" he said. She amplified: "We sorta forgot about it in the hustle and bustle of previews and nerves and changes." The good news, he delivered: "Angela is just a joy to work with — and Marian. You really couldn't ask for two better people."

McNally, smiling broadly like a man who had just made it over the finish line (which, indeed, he had), conceded that rewriting is bad for the nerves but shrugged helplessly. "It's what I do for a living," he said. "No one makes you write a play, after all."

This particular play is a reflection of a private passion the way Master Class and The Lisbon Traviata mirrored his love of opera and the Nathan Lane roles in Love! Valour! Compassion! and Lips Together, Teeth Apart betray a Broadway show-tunes bent.

"I don't play tennis anymore," he admitted. "Since my surgery — I'm a lung-cancer survivor — that's one of the things that [had to] go. I don't have the stamina, but I love watching it."

Come mid-July, he will get down to cases with the musical book for Catch Me If You Can, the great-impostor movie that Steven Spielberg made with Leonardo DiCaprio five years ago. (Its director, Coast of Utopia's Jack O'Brien, and its lyricist, Hairspray's Scott Wittman, were among McNally's opening-night well-wishers.) He just finished his next straight play, Unusual Acts of Devotion, which will star Kathy Bates, the first Frankie in his Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.

Produced by his life partner, Tom Kirdahy, it will premiere in the upcoming season at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, from whence cometh his most recent Second Stage opus, Some Men.

John Glover, who won a Tony playing twins in Love! Valour! Compassion! in 1995, climbed out of his chair at the Marriott Marquis where he has been for three full weeks in The Drowsy Chaperone and made it to the opening of Deuce. He was the glamorous transvestite in the Philadelphia lift-off of Some Men, but a TV series commitment prevented him from reprising the performance in New York. "I was jealous that I didn't get to be in it here, but you can't have everything. David Greenspan was wonderful in the part, a real kabuki performance, but I at least did it in Philly. I bought my dress, too."

The Curtains cast made a photo-op spectacle of themselves by arriving in one big star-cluster: David Hyde Pierce, Debra Monk, Jason Danieley and Edward Hibbert. The latter presented Lansbury with a very special opening-night gift: a photo of his father (Geoffrey Hibbert) and her mother (Moyna MacGill) as Lord and Lady Brockhurst in the original 1954 production of The Boy Friend that brought Julie Andrews to Broadway.

Contributing to the block-party ambiance, Charlotte d'Amboise had a helluvah commute, crossing the street from A Chorus Line at the Schoenfeld, escorted by the husband she found in the trash cans of Cats, Terrence Mann, now a silver-haired "senior Cat." He relayed that he just finished a series for the sci-fi channel called "The Dresden Files."

Ashley Brown, strolling over with co-star Gavin Lee and his wife Emily from the New Amsterdam's Mary Poppins, pronounced the play "practically perfect in every way."

Nathan Lane greeted Harriet Harris with a kiss at the theatre and talked endlessly with her at Sardi's scenic second-floor bar — a lot of catching-up to do, apparently. She was Maggie Cutler to his Sheridan Whiteside in Broadway's last Man Who Came to Dinner at Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre, and now she's back in town —bound for the same theatre June 28 — co-starring with Margaret Colin in John Van Druten's classic cat-fight, Old Acquaintance. Needless to add, she found the stellar friction in Deuce highly instructive — "and I'm still learning new things from my old acting teacher, Marian."

Another Seldes supporter was Karen Akers, the statuesque chanteuse who's now giving composer Jule Styne a splendid salute at the Algonquin. "We've never worked together," Akers admitted, "but we hope to do Three Tall Women some day." (As well they should.)

Also in Seldes camp was Victor Garber, who's spending his TV hiatus now in Noel Coward's Present Laughter for director Nicholas Martin at Boston's Huntington Theatre. Garber did a year at the Music Box with Seldes in Ira Levin's Deathtrap. She did all of that show's 1,793 performances and made the Guinness Book of Records.

Deathtrap stage manager Lani Sundsten made the opening with hubby Manny Azenberg.

The fans who came the farthest for this premiere: Millicent Martin ("Angela's a great friend out in Los Angeles. I came to support her. I came for a week to visit Elaine Orbach, who came with me tonight.") Also, Christopher MacDonald interrupted his moviemaking with Diane Keaton in Baton Rouge to make the trek north ("I'm a friend of Michael Mulheren and a fan of the play. I'd read it, and I wanted to do it, and I was frustrated that I couldn't get the time free long enough to take a meeting on it.").

David Staller and Brian Murray were allowed out of tech to attend the Deuce launch. They have, respectively, the Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotten roles in the Irish Rep revival of Patrick Hamilton's old warhorse melodrama, Angel Street, now renamed Gaslight after Ingrid Bergman's Oscar-winning vehicle and set to open there May 17.

It should be remembered that the doxy who did the light dusting in the Boyer-Bergman household was an 18-year-old Angela Lansbury, at the beginning of her 63-year career.

Tennis legend Billie Jean King was Deuce's top card, an unexpected celebrity. Kathryn Grody came with her son (in lieu of her spouse, Mandy Patinkin). Hairspray Tony winner Dick Latessa arrived with Grey Gardens' yet-to-be-Tonyed Mary Louise Wilson. McNally took time for a comforting word to photographer Jill Krementz, Kurt Vonnegut's widow.

There was a first-tier line of journalists attending. In addition to Osborne (who was with his Osborne neighbor, Ellen Kapit, a real-estate broker who got Lansbury her apartment), there was Liz Smith with Cynthia McFadden, The Post's Michael Riedel with Chez Josephine's Jean-Claude Baker and, of course, perennial Postie, Cindy Adams.

Also: Liz Callaway, Tony winner Andrea Martin, playwrights John Guare and Paul Rudnick, producers David Stone and Jeffrey Richards, Joan Copeland, composer Stephen Flaherty (without his wordsmith, Lynn Ahrens, for once), Barbara Cook with Harvey Evans, director Walter Bobbie, Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank, Jamie de Roy, Tovah Feldshuh and Simon Jones.

Jan Maxwell dropped by after a Sunday night performance of the three-hour-long Coram Boy to retrieve her son and husband (Robert Emmet Lunney, who understudies the men roles in Deuce) — and she was still earlier than Donna Murphy, who sailed in late with hubby Sean Elliott. At her LoveMusik opening-night party last week, Murphy showed up two hours after the curtain fell. (Lansbury and Seldes bettered that by a good 90 minutes.)

Lansbury found herself a cozy alcove on the second floor and surrounded herself with family — her two twin brothers (Edgar the theatre producer and Bruce the television producer), son Anthony Shaw, daughter Deirdre and her husband. But she had time for everyone and made periodic forays around the room, flitting among the glad-handers with great English charm, style and proper good manners, a moving picture of graciousness.

She kept this up all evening, without the slightest sign of fatigue. You'd think you were at Mame Dennis' in full party mode. Late in the evening, I asked her which was harder — the party or the performance? She looked me in the eye, smiled the smile of Bethlehem Steel and said, "The party."

Marian Seldes and Angela Lansbury take their opening night bows.
Marian Seldes and Angela Lansbury take their opening night bows. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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