We hear the smack of a tennis ball. We hear a crowd applaud wildly.

The lights go up on Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes sitting in stadium chairs. The audience applauds wildly.

Deuce, Terrence McNally's new play about two aging tennis stars, also is about its two aging stage stars, and it is clear that Lansbury and Seldes are still smashing them across the net.

We learn that Leona Mullen (Lansbury) and Midge Barker (Seldes) retired from professional doubles tennis 30 years ago - before women's tennis reached its current status of a big-money, big-power sport. Watching the U.S. Open tournament as guests of honor, they reminisce about their championship partnership and their uneasy friendship. Mingled with tennis talk is personal talk: husbands, aging, fear of death, outrage at old age's invisibility. It becomes clear that Leona has always been the aggressive personality, while Midge is the more genteel.

They enviously disparage the profitable endorsements of contemporary players; they scorn the revealing outfits and their grunting as "unladylike." Where are the classic whites of yesteryear? They laugh, remembering that everyone thought they were lesbians: "That's because we were so good. Now, even poor players are lesbians."

Michael Blakemore's direction is expectably masterful, moving our attention from side to side, up and down, with video projections on big screens creating the look and sound of a stadium. This cleverly conceals the lack of onstage action: Each woman stands up twice, once to take off her jacket, once to see better.

The up-and-backness inherent in what is essentially a two-hander called Deuce about tennis is alleviated by two TV commentators and one fan.

Up above, with headsets, Ryan and Kelly do their crude sportscaster thing in their crude sportscaster voices (Joanna Adler's laugh is very funny), full of self-importance and rivalry - another two-hander, another doubles game. McNally uses them to work in much of the history of the game. The fan (Michael Mulheren) is the most egregiously soppy role. Approaching the two stars with autograph book, he concludes "we will not see their like again."

Much of the sentimentality and the triteness of the show's language - which seeps in everywhere - belongs to this blatant script device of The Admirer. There is also something creepy about eulogizing Angela Lansbury while she is alive, and well, and looking great.

The audience came for Lansbury, and she delivered the goods. And although Deuce is entertaining, one might wish her celebrated return to Broadway had been in a stronger play.

Deuce

Written by Terrence McNally. Directed by Michael Blakemore. Sets by Peter J. Davison, costumes by Ann Roth, lighting by Mark Henderson, video and projection by Sven Ortel, sound by Paul Charlier.

The Cast: Angela Lansbury (Leona Mullen), Marian Seldes (Midge Barker), Michael Mulheren (The Admirer), Brian Haley (Ryan Becker), Joanna P. Adler (Kelly Short).

Playing at Music Box Theatre

(239 W. 45th St., New York).

Tickets: $76.25-$96.25. Information: 1-800-432-7250 or www.telecharge.com

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