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Never Say Never

Date: Jul 25, 2007


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Angela Lansbury may have told the press that Terrence McNally's Deuce will be her last Broadway show, but her co-star Marian Seldes won't have any of it.

"I don't believe it," Seldes said recently. "I think something will occur that she'll want to do, and she'll do it again. She loves acting in the theatre too much to give it up."

It's easy to understand why Seldes would think this: A queen of the American stage if there ever was one, with a career that spans nearly six decades, it's hard to imagine her ever saying never again. But she's not without some empathy for Lansbury's position.

"The pressure of doing it eight times a week is hard," she conceded of McNally's play, in which she and Lansbury play former tennis pros, reunited after many years and revisiting their past. Both actresses remain seated onstage throughout. "Some people have said  'this play gives these two players a chance to rest,' but you don't rest. We are at the same game, we and the audience.

"We have so many things that we <i>don't</i> do in this play: We don't have exits and entrances. We're there the whole time. We're kind of spinning it out of the air. I don't mean that it's hard to act--it's a thrill to act it--but when I finish, I feel as if I've been running all evening. I'm absolutely out of breath and exhausted, and I haven't moved a muscle."

And on top of the demands of the play itself are the demands of the audience--for Lansbury, at least.

"The expectation is so high--people want so much to see her, and I think that puts an even greater responsibility on her. In my last play, which also happened to be by Terrence (Dedication), I was with Nathan Lane, and it was the same thing. The expectation of the audience is so great; it's something that has to be dealt with. People don't become stars by accident; the public adores them.

Surely Seldes is selling herself a bit short. Theatre audiences, after all, can and do count on her presence in any show as a stamp of quality. But theatrical presence and chops are not what she's talking about.

"I'm an actress, but fame is something extra," said Seldes, who won a Tony for the 1967 premiere of Albee's A Delicate Balance. "I don't know if people seek it or what. But when it comes, it's a little frightening. It must be nice, in some ways, but in other ways it's not. I don't have that in my life. I can't imagine how I'd deal with it if I did."

She's quick to add that the stars she's worked with don't behave in recognizably starry ways.

"Like Angela, they've all been professionally brilliant. I can't think of an instance when I've worked in the theatre when a star behaved like a 'star.' They've behaved like actors who loved the theatre, not like what the movies portray of stage actors--the diva thing."

When it was suggested that perhaps it is Seldes' own classy demeanor that puts a damper on any would-be excesses of her colleagues--who would want to act like a diva around her?--she demurred with a laugh, but added: "I'd like to think if there's someone young I'm working with that I might disabuse of them of the idea of being a diva."

Seldes herself began in the theatre with extraordinary mentors and peers--Katherine Cornell, John Gielgud, Judith Anderson, the Lunts--and went on to become a model for succeeding generations when she taught at Juilliard from 1968 to 1990. Her students included Kevin Kline, Gerald Guiterrez and Frances Conroy. From the perspective of six decades on the boards, how has she seen acting change?

"Life changes, the world changes," Seldes says. "It would be awful if I said to you, 'Acting is just the same as it was in the 1940s.' The plays are different; the language is different. The world changes the theatre, and the theatre responds. It's still very exciting to me. It is ever new; you never go and do the same thing, even if sometimes you might think, 'Oh, this is a little bit like...' And it isn't. I have a joke with my family: I don't compare."

One thing that's moving about seeing Seldes and Lansbury play aging tennis stars in Deuce is that while athletes invariably have short careers, actors need not. That's not the only difference between sports and acting, Seldes said.

"We're not in a race," she said. "Differently from a sport, where you must compete, and someone must win and someone must lose--that's not a metaphor for the theatre. When something is good, everyone wins. And when something isn't good, that doesn't mean you lose. In my memory, some of the things I loved the most were in shows that were not successes, but they had acting and directing and playwriting I'll never forget."

Memory, though, is not the only place where the theatre lives.

"It's not on film, so you can't rerun it. It's in our memories," Seldes said. "But if the audience remembers, they'll come to the theatre again. I'm always looking for young people in the audience. I'm so fascinated by who's coming next, and if we can seduce young people to come to the theatre."

This in-the-moment perspective may be why Seldes can say, with a straight face, "I almost want to laugh when people talk about how long my career is or call me a 'veteran.' I feel like I'm just starting out."

For tickets to Deuce, go here. 

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