Thursday, January 25, 2018

Recreating the "Battle of the Sexes" in BALLS at 59E59 Theaters

Foreground L-R: Ellen Tamaki and Donald Corren in BALLS.  Photo by Russ Rowland.
Balls by Kevin Armento and Bryony Lavery, currently being staged at 59E59 Theaters, is a remarkable production.  Set in 1973 in the Houston Astrodome on an exceptionally creative set, Kristen Robinson’s shape and direction-shifting tennis court, it is a play-by-play replication of the classic $100,000 winner-take-all “Battle of the Sexes”  tennis match between the world’s top-ranked female tennis player, 29 year-old Billie Jean King (Ellen Tamaki) and Bobby Riggs (Donald Corren) who was at one time the world’s top-ranked tennis player but who now, at age 55, although still a strong tennis player in his own right, might better be described as the consummate tennis hustler.
But this work is much more than just a brilliantly choreographed simulation of that iconic tennis match which the playwright has used so effectively to explore the broader ramifications of both the feminist movement and the sexual revolution since their inceptions.  Thus we are reminded that while the world’s attention was drawn to the entertainment provided by the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match (it is estimated that 50 million Americans and 90 million people worldwide watched the match on television), far more important events affecting women’s (and men’s) lives were transpiring (not the least of which was the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion that was handed down in the same year).

The play’s title, Balls, refers not only to the obvious – tennis balls and testicles – but also to those celestial orbs, the Sun, the Moon and the Earth itself, that ultimately reflect the direction of our lives.  As the Earth turns and revolves around the Sun, time passes and values change.  (They evolve or deteriorate depending upon your perspective.)  Or, as the Ballboy (Alex J. Gould) asks at one point: “Why’s everything gotta keep changing?”  To which the Ballgirl (Elisha Mudly) answers: “because the world keeps spinning.”
Billie Jean learns to see the world not only in terms of the straight lines and oblongs of the tennis court but in terms of “triangles” as well as she enters into an intimate lesbian relationship with her travel secretary, Marilyn Barnett (Zakiya Iman Markland) even while remaining married.  Her husband, Larry King (Dante Jeanfelix), fully supports her (at least initially), suppressing any thoughts he might have regarding the sanctity of marriage with the rationalization that “Over time, people want to explore new things.  And it’s your job to support that.”

And given the near-simultaneity of the Roe v. Wade decision and the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, it comes as no surprise that the subject of abortion plays a central role in Balls.  As it turns out, not only did Billie Jean once have an abortion but another female tennis star, Chris Evert (also played by Elisha Mudly) once underwent one as well.  And it doesn’t even end there: so did the Ballgirl (although we never do learn for sure whether her unborn child had been fathered by the Ballboy or was the result of an affair with someone else).

And as for the “sanctity” of the very institution of marriage itself, make of this what you will.  Billie Jean and Larry eventually divorced.  Chris Evert has been married four times (at last count).  Even the Ballboy and Ballgirl married – and subsequently divorced.  Apparently the marriage center will not hold.
And so our attitudes toward abortion changed.  And to marriage.  And to same-sex relationships.  And even to sex change operations (ala Renee Richards).  All of which some of you will view as progress and others of you as regress.  But there also were some changes between 1973 and today that I believe all but the most misogynistic among us must recognize as progress.  Sandra Day O’Connor did become the first female justice on the Supreme Court (today there are three).  Sally Ride did become the first American female astronaut.  And Billie Jean was paid just as much for winning her match against Bobby Riggs as he would have been paid had he beaten her.

Balls is performed in a circus-like manner, in part, I’m sure, to convey the carnival-esque mood that surrounded the original “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match but even more, I am convinced, to reflect the playwright’s good-humored contempt for the overall human condition.  Or as Marilyn expresses it: “…how silly it all was.  That anyone could make such a fuss about a boy and a girl, or a girl and a girl, and who’s better at swinging some wooden stick at some stupid balls.”

To that end, the Line Judges are depicted as clowns by Clownboy (Richard Saudek) and Clowngirl (Olivia McGiff).  And two tennis Superfans are played by twin buffoons Cherry (Cristina Pitter) and Terry (Danny Bernardy).

And yet, when all is said and done, it is Cherry and Terry who have the last laugh.  When Jim Brown (also played by Dante Jeanfelix) attempts to explain away the fact that he has been arrested innumerable times by asking “Well you try living your life under a spotlight.  Wait, why are we even talking to you??” and Chris Evert chimes in, in justification of her multiple marriages, “Yeah, what the hell have you done in the last forty years?” Cherry’s response is clear and to the point:

“Well, I raised five kids on my own after Daddy’s heart attack…I look out for all the seniors on my block…and I volunteer at the homeless shelter every weekend…”

to which Terry adds:

“And I’ve been working sixty hours a week at a shit job so I could help bring up my sister’s kids.  Then I looked after our sick mama every night while studying for my masters in real estate…which I finished this week, which is why we’re here celebrating!!!”

Monday, January 15, 2018


L-R: Kelly Schaschl and Autumn Dornfeld in WINTER BREAK, part of THE 2018 LABUTE THEATER FESTIVAL.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
This year’s LaBute New Theater Festival at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan consists of three one act plays: Hate Crime by Neil LaBute, Winter Break by James Haigney and Percentage America by Carter W. Lewis.  Of the three, Haigney’s Winter Break stands head and shoulders above the other two: it is a brilliantly scripted exposition of the disconnect that exists between those who view the worldwide Islamic movement as nothing worse than a long overdue counterbalancing corrective to the flaws and excesses inherent in Western Civilization’s focus on the rights of the individual, the Judeo-Christian tradition, capitalism and other free market democratic principles (or at the very least nothing more than a movement predicated on Shariah-based moral principles fully as deserving of respect as our own more secular-oriented ethos), and those who perceive in the Islamic movement the gravest threat confronting our world since the rise of fascism and Nazism in the1930s and 1040s.

L-R: Kelly Schaschl and Spencer Sickmann in WINTER BREAK, part of THE 2018 LABUTE THEATER FESTIVAL.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Joanna Khouri (Kelly Schaschl), a 21-year old student raised in suburbia as an Episcopalian, has converted to Islam (changing her name to Aisha in the process) and is planning to travel to Turkey to live and study with the Sufis for two-and-a-half weeks during her school’s winter break.  Her mother, Kitty (Autumn Dornfeld) (who wouldn’t know a Sunni from a Sufi) is understandably distraught by this turn of events and Joanna’s brother, Bailey (Spencer Sickmann), a graduate student in sociology who fancies himself something of an expert on cultures other than his own, is convinced that if his kid sister follows through on her plans she will be decapitated in the Middle East or be brainwashed into returning to the United States as a terrorist.  Haigney has done a superb job in depicting the alternative realities perceived by the three Khouris and Schaschl, Dornfeld and Sickmann are terrific at conveying their distinctively differing emotional states. 

L-R: Chauncy Thomas and Spencer Sickmann in HATE CRIME, part of THE 2018 LABUTE THEATER FESTIVAL.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Neil LaBute’s Hate Crime, on the other hand, was disappointing.  Indeed, I don’t think it was a fully developed play at all but little more than an idea for one which was never brought to fruition.  A rather submissive young gay man (Spencer Sickmann) is about to marry his older partner but, before the marriage is consummated, he falls in love with a tough alpha-male gay man (Chauncy Thomas).  The two new partners plot to kill the older gay man on the day of the wedding and to make the murder look like a hate crime.  And that’s it.  We have no idea what subsequently happens and, frankly, the set-up required so great a suspension of disbelief that I didn’t much care.  LaBute is, of course, a master of language and dialog and so, unsurprisingly, there are occasional moments of sharp wit and humor even in this theatrical fragment (I hesitate to refer to it as a one act play).  And both Thomas and Sickmann play their roles with gusto.  But it’s just not enough.

L-R: Autumn Dornfeld and Chauncy Thomas in PERCENTAGE AMERICA, part of THE 2018 LABUTE THEATER FESTIVAL.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The third play, Percentage America by Carter W. Lewis, is based on a very clever series of conceits: (1) that we all lie in our personal relationships (about our ages, our residences, our educational attainments, our occupations, our families, and on and on; (2) that these lies segue into our acceptance of lies on a grander scale in the form of “fake news” and “alternative facts” in political, national and world affairs; and (3) that stripping away all the lies and spin to arrive at the kernel of “truth” in what we are told is the greatest erotic turn-on of all.  Arial (Autumn Dornfeld) and Andrew (Chauncy Thomas) are on a first date (perhaps resulting from an internet connection), finishing off pizza and wine in Arial’s apartment.  They’ve succeeded in good-naturedly stripping away one another’s self-aggrandizing self-descriptions as if it is a sort of foreplay before they get down to the serious stuff of stripping the world at large of its dishonesty.  Both Dornfeld and Thomas are passionate actors and they play their roles for all they’re worth but it doesn’t quite work.  I think the play has great promise but it’s not there yet and could use another couple of workshops.