A man who saw drama in tennis and put the game’s social reckoning on stage before we even understood it was happening.
Four-time Tony Award-winning playwright, Emmy Award winner, the prolific “Bard of the American Theater,” Terrence McNally, died from complications of COVID-19 on March 24. He was a gentle, classy, humble man who I once had the pleasure to work for as a playwright’s assistant. In a career that spanned six decades, Terrence famously enjoyed opera, India, Bob Dylan, the Florida Keys and tennis! His 2007 Broadway play, Deuce, featured Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes playing retired tennis greats returning to the U.S. Open to be honored at a women’s quarterfinal. They sit courtside and reflect on the great athletes who preceded them like Babe Didrikson and Althea Gibson. They consider the state of the modern women’s game and critique everything from its fashion to its lack of grace (before Serena Williams experienced her first legendary U.S. Open meltdown).
With Seldes and Lansbury in the leads, it was impossible to miss the parallels Terrence was making between athletic and theatrical performance and the personality traits of the divas that occupy those respective stages. The play also delves into class disparities that tennis still struggles to discuss. That original production also took time to skewer tennis announcers for lacking substance, something which still plagues tennis on TV more than a decade later.
Deuce was well-received by audiences, but, panned by critics, though Lansbury was nominated for a Tony and Seldes was praised for her performance. I actually don’t think the director understood the play. Eric Grode of the awful New York Sun wrote quite fairly of the director: “[He] appears to have staged the play when he had a few hours to kill one afternoon.” Painful.
In late 2000, I directed Terrence’s anti-war play Bringing It All Back Home (which he named for the Dylan album) in New York and I assisted him on one of his most challenging works, Some Men, in 2006. Those experiences changed my life and I will miss running into Terrence around town and saying hi. May he rest in peace and may we prevail in defeating the scourge that has swept our planet and stolen so many a gentle soul like his.