25
Apr
07

A Living Legend … Lives!

All the way from the Lower East Side, where I work, to Midtown, I was singing, literally singing to myself (albeit under my breath).

Light the candles.
Get the ice out.
Roll the rug up.
It’s today…

Yeah, I’m one of those.

Though it may not be anyone’s birthday,
And though it’s far from the first of the year,
I know that this very minute
Has history in it.
We’re here!

The day in question was Wednesday, April 18, the day for which I held one ticket to a preview performance of Deuce, a new Terrence McNally play starring Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes. It was my breathless anticipation of Ms. Lansbury that inspired my internal musical monologue — “It’s Today,” from the 1966 Broadway production of Mame. I had been weak in the knees for months since receiving a postcard advertising the show. And this was the day.

Sad Face

There she was on that glossy postcard with Seldes, a stark, black-and-white close-up, both women staring out at me, me, look at me! Lansbury, imperfect and utterly beautiful in heavy eyeliner, haughty and aloof, like a modern-day Marquise de Merteuil; Seldes looking severe, sharp and slightly manic, grinning like Cesar Romero as The Joker. Who could be sure if it was meant to suggest more about the characters or the actresses? Either way, it was instantly clear to me that I had to see the show.

I was easily the youngest person at the shabby-but-cozy Music Box Theater. From the back row of the orchestra seats, I could survey every head in the audience: 70% gray; 20% bald. Sandwiched between an overdressed (and overperfumed) wife and husband in their late 50s, and a lone woman in her late 40s who spent the 15 minutes before the show reading Money Magazine, I felt conspicuous and a bit precocious.

Lansbury and Seldes are two former doubles tennis stars, Leona Mullen and Midge Barker, respectively, who have reunited, after a long time apart, to make an appearance at a championship women’s tennis match. Between volleys (cue SFX — pok! … pok! … pok! — and swiveling heads) they reminisce about their successful career together, relive some ancient rivalries, rehash the history of the Women’s Tennis Association, complain a bit about the sponsorship deals of modern athletes, and talk a great deal about lesbians.

Leona is brassy, potty-mouthed, experimental; Midge is disciplined, clean-cut, careful. This is not what the publicity photos seemed to suggest.

I know little to nothing about tennis. I took lessons once, at age 15. I can serve a ball, but that’s about it. (Incidentally, I was the youngest person in that situation, too.) No matter. Half the reason (if not the whole reason) you go to see a show like this, with someone so huge in it, is precisely because she is so huge. The lights go down. The curtain goes up. The audience erupts into immediate applause. And the actresses, lit softly, slightly from behind, stand there stoic, patient, completely immobile, as if they’re not expecting the uproar, oh would you just stop clapping and let us get on with this, fortheloveofMike!

And you feel the swell of a Moment — something Important. You are a part of … a Happening. History. The play itself is not so important. All I can think is: I … am in the same room … as Angela Lansbury.

A voice comes over the speakers: “Quiet in the audience, please.” A tennis joke, I later learned. Professional players will ask for silence in the audience before attempting a serve, prompting a severe voice at the loudspeakers. Unfortunately, it felt forced and absurd and insincere to me. Ha ha, we know you know nothing about the show and you’re just clapping for these grandes dames of the stage! A built-in joke drawing too much attention to the actresses and taking us outside of the play. But it got a chuckle from the folks.

It’s just the two of them — with the exception of occasional, contrasting cut-aways to the two obnoxious tennis announcers, and a brief visit from a fan with an autograph book — sitting there. Someone suggested it’s like My Dinner with Andre, without the dinner.

The sound was not so good. Lansbury seemed to stumble on a few lines, but she recovered gracefully each time. The show was still in its first week of previews, so I forgave the little slips. Truth be told, I had probably set myself up to be more critical of her than necessary. I was there to see her, after all, and was watching her more closely than anyone else. It’s like when I see friends perform, or when I read something a friend has written: I am instantly critical, and all I see are errors. I take the high baseline of their talent for granted — of course, it’s good! — and all I feel I can constructively offer is advice. (Though I am aware they, like all of us, want praise, too.)

Ultimately, the two friends let down their guard by and by, for maybe the first time in their lives, leading up to the revelation of a climactic truth.

I confess: I’m guessing here. But I know there was some sort of revelation, because I woke up just as the echo of the clincher was fading away and a long, quiet moment overtook the audience. A woman whispered to her companion. People shifted in their seats. And I lifted my chin up off of my chest and cursed myself for falling asleep.

Again!

As an intense wave of body heat coursed through me and I began to perspire a little, I could feel in the air that I’d just missed something essential. The one moment revealing McNally’s purpose had just passed. I totally blew it.

Embarrassed and angry at myself, I could not let go of the moment all night. I re-enacted it discreetly on the subway ride back, letting my head droop slightly, over and over — this is what I did, this is what I did — as if to prove to myself that … well, you don’t have to be nodding off to look like this. Like … a total retard. I punished myself by trying to remember the last thing I heard before shutting down and the first thing I heard upon waking.

I’m pretty sure it had something to do with a health-related revelation made by one of the characters half-way through the play, something you’d expect from a play about people in their mid-70s, but I won’t know now until I read the damn thing. For all I know, Midge revealed she’s a lesbian, or Leona revealed that she keeps her dead husband in the freezer in the basement. I find I have to read and see a play performed at least once, to really understand it, anyway. The actor’s interpretation reveals part, while the bare words on the page reveal something else. Maybe it’s a lack of imagination, a problem with attention span, my apparent narcolepsy.

What did not escape my notice, however, was the sad central theme of the play. These two women are watching the match, talking, laughing, arguing, remembering. Living. Dying.

They can watch the world move on without them. They’ve made a mark, paved the way, and their public appearance at the tournament proves they are remembered well. But even as they are revered by the autograph collector and the color commentators, they are also dismissed as passé. They are no longer necessary to the next generation, except in the past tense. They are the old guard, and they must pass on the torch as their own flames burn low and blue and ever dimmer.

It’s clear to me why the audience demographic was so specific. I felt like I was listening in on a conversation at the adult table at Thanksgiving. It’s not so easy to separate the actors from the characters, after all. As a young person, to me this thematic notion of mortality is sad. But these women (the actresses and the characters), in contrast, have so much reason to celebrate. I can’t bear to think that they will not be here one day, because we love and admire them. But maybe, the closer they get to the finish line, it just feels more like an impending vacation and a well-earned rest.

While they are still here, however …

It’s a time for making merry,
And so I’m for making hay.
Tune the grand up,
Call the cops out,
Strike the band up,
Pull the stops out,
Hallelujah!
It’s today!

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