Broadway bets two can draw a crowd

Three new plays explore disparate lives pushed together by music, strife, time, and friendship.

Broadway's final entries for the 2007 season all feature unlikely twosomes in unique relationships. "Deuce," "Lovemusik," and "110 in the Shade" spotlight pairs of people who are thrown together and share adventure, love, conflict, and the ravages of time.

Ending her 28-year hiatus from the Great White Way, the legendary Angela Lansbury comes home to the stage, to join another estimable theatre icon, Marian Seldes, in "Deuce." Playing retired women's doubles-team tennis pros, these stalwart ladies chew over past victories and defeats, while speculating on the state of today's sporting world for female athletes.

The entire endeavor unfolds as the pair witnesses a championship tennis match, where the women will be honored for their unbeaten record of accomplishments. In an age when mediocre performance on the court but striking good looks in magazine ads is a formula for success, this duo spars over the changes their former domain has undergone.

While plays built on two-person dialogues can reveal deep secrets and troubling conflicts (see "Doubt"), Terrence McNally's slight scenario offers these veterans little to work with, and their verbal volleys barely manage to reveal the basics of how they truly feel about life's Big Questions. Still, Seldes and Lansbury valiantly keep the ball aloft, using stagecraft that has earned them places in the Broadway Hall of Fame.

When German composer Kurt Weill first meets aspiring singer Lotte Lenya in "Lovemusik," she's cleaning hotel rooms for a living, and sometimes spending the night in them with various men. He's a reclusive introvert brimming with creative talent, aching to break free from the confines of his structured persona.

In yet another example of actors triumphing over underdeveloped material, Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy ignite this passionate affair with real vitality, clinging to the enigmatic qualities Weill's music always sparked.

When Weill finally convinces the über-bohemian Berthold Brecht to allow his poetry to be set to Weill's music, the results catapult the team to the top of 1930s Berlin cafe society. But Lenya's free-spirit approach to her singing career, and their romance, bring up many unanswered questions about how and why they kept coming together and breaking apart. These creative real-life giants jostled their way through a tumultuous relationship that took them from Nazi Germany to talent-hungry America – where Weill conquered Broadway and eventually Hollywood – but Lenya's career suffered from erratic fits and starts. Alfred Uhry's by-the-numbers script, and Hal Prince's rote staging seem content to leave the reasons behind their colorful story a mystery.

Lizzie, the lead character of "110 in the Shade," is a plain spinster, while Starbuck is a lustful traveling con man. When he blows into the county, promising to bring a deluge to the parched territory, it's not rain she smells, but trouble.

Based on Richard N. Nash's play, this musical revival swells with the homespun charm for which their lyricist/composer team (Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt of "The Fantasticks") have become noted. And the material will always create an opening for the most prominent creative force behind any production.

A City Center revival in the 1990s mounted by Susan Stroman was noteworthy for its choreography. In this Roundabout Theatre revival, that creative force is Audra McDonald, who makes Lizzie personable and sympathetic, not cloying or pitiable. McDonald, after four Tony Awards, is still at the top of both 'games' she is playing here – singer and actress.

Veteran low-key musical-theater star John Cullum keeps the subject of her single status on a steady simmer, giving the story somewhere to go when the unthinkable happens – two men show fierce interest in Lizzie, at the same time. Her masked emotions, revealed in glorious complexity in "Love, Don't Turn Away," "Old Maid," and "Simple Little Things," show us a Lizzie who knows what she wants and is willing to wait for it. When she does choose between the flashy gypsy con man and the staid, reclusive county sheriff, her choice is not surprising. What does surprise is the depth of emotions McDonald instills in this potentially two-dimensional character, and as the final, long-awaited cloudburst floods the stage, the outer layers that have cloaked her true self are washed away.

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