By Kevin Armento and Bryony Lavery
Produced by One Year Lease Theater Company and Stages Repertory Theatre
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 2.25.18
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
by Eleanor J. Bader on 1.24.18
Ellen Tamaki and Donald Corren in Balls. Photo by Russ Rowland.
BOTTOM LINE: A multi-dimensional look at sexism, homophobia, and ageism, centered around a famous tennis match.
Donald Trump may have done heinous things in his first year in office, but as Pussy Grabber-in-Chief, his reprehensible behavior toward women has done something 45 years of feminist activism has not: It’s made the issue of how we treat one another—specifically the assumptions we make about sexual availability— mainstream. In fact, the #MeToo movement has forced just about everyone—whether straight or queer—to peer deeply into what it means to give consent, forcing us to parse the rules of seduction and sexual behavior.
But while the ensuing discussion is both important and overdue, it’s also essential to look back and deconstruct the foundational logic (or, actually, the illogic) that has led so many of us to treat others badly. The recent Golden Globe-nominated Battle of the Sexes mined this terrain by focusing on the 1973 tennis match between “Male Chauvinist Pig” Bobby Riggs and “Women’s Libber” Billie Jean King. The movie focused on the most overt expressions of sexism and homophobia during the widely-watched four-game match, but steered clear of the more salacious details of the competition and the tumultuous personal lives of the people involved.
Enter Balls. Not only does the play pivot around the King-Riggs tennis match, it puts the contentious games into a broader political frame, with a voice-over commentator periodically reading news clips from 1973 to the present. It also juxtaposes the rivalry between Riggs (Donald Corren) and King (Ellen Tamaki) with that of 1974 Wimbledon winners Chris Evert (Elisha Mudly) and Jimmy Connors (Alex J. Gould), a couple whose romantic entanglement was fodder for news writers and gossip mongers throughout much of the 1970s. The unfolding hostilities between photogenic Evert and the barely literate Connors serve to further expose the ways that sexism, and sexist suppositions, keep us at loggerheads.
In addition, Balls introduces several ancillary themes. Among them is King’s eight-year relationship with Marilyn Barnett (Zakiya Iman Markland) while still married to Larry (Danté Jeanfelix); the play zeroes in on the incendiary palimony lawsuit that outed the closeted star. Additionally, Riggs' discussion of ageism in sports—and the fact that, as a 55-year-old former champ, he was treated as a has-been, called upon only when a charity needed someone to participate in an event—makes him somewhat sympathetic despite his priggish condescension toward King and other female athletes. His persona is well-written, nuanced, and complex. King's character, however, is less developed and her internal struggles with heterosexism, professionalism, and sexual desire are hinted at but never fully revealed.
I found this disappointing. At the same time, there is much to recommend in this production. For one, the physicality is remarkable. Movement director Natalie Lomonte has done a stellar job of choreographing everyone from the Umpires (Cristina Pitter and Danny Bernardy), to the Astrodome Stadium clowns (Olivia McGiff and Richard Saudek) to the combative tennis pros themselves. As unseen balls fly—the audience hears them thwack and whirl as they go back and forth over the net thanks to the amazing sound direction of Brendan Aanes—it’s as if the actual match is being replayed.
All told, it’s a gripping work. Timely and provocative, it underscores how far we’ve come from the blatantly expressed misogyny and homophobia of 1973. At the same time, it elucidates how far we still need to go to fully eradicate these evils. As directors Ianthe Demos and Nick Flint write in the program notes, “This sporting event was a touchstone for beginning a vital societal conversation. Beneath all the hype and carnival of the event, a paradigm-shift was being ignited.” Still, the pair recognize that there is much in the paradigm that has refused to give way and write that they crafted the play to ask what it will it take to provoke the necessary cultural transformation. Balls does not try to tell us how best to do this. To its credit, it leaves us to do the hard work of figuring it out for ourselves.
(Balls plays at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, through February 25, 2018. The running time is 80 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7; Saturdays at 2 and 7; and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $70 ($49 for 59E59 members); for tickets and more information call 212.279.4200 or visit 59e59.org.)
Balls is by Kevin Armento and Bryony Lavery. Directed by Ianthe Demos and Nick Flint. Choreography/Movement Direction by Natalie Lomonte. Sound Design by Brendan Aanes. Costume Design by Kenisha Kelly. Lighting Design by Mike Riggs. Set Design by Kristen Robinson. Production Stage Manager is Katherine Shelton. Assistant State Manager is Sammi Katz.
The cast is Danny Bernardy, Donald Corren, Alex J. Gould, Danté Jeanfelix, Zakiya Iman Markland, Olivia McGiff, Elisha Mudly, Cristina Pitter, Richard Saudek, and Ellen Tamaki.