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Big Bill

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Fame, as they say, is fleeting, and while a celebrity may be revered today, he could just as easily be reviled tomorrow. Take, for example, the case of William Tatem Tilden II, or "Big Bill." In 2004, how much is remembered - both the achievements and the disappointments - of the one of the first tennis superstars, the man who redefined it as a professional sport?

Well, A.R. Gurney is out to change that. His new play, Big Bill at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, provides a wealth of information about why Tilden should be remembered - and some good reasons he may not be. But despite some valiant serves, it never quite makes it over the net.

This is not due to the play's construction; Gurney's scenes shift in time to show Tilden at all points in his adult life from his early 20s to his death in 1953 at age 60. This allows Gurney to construct one image of the tennis superstar and then knock it down later on, bringing the story into clearer focus as Tilden is seen as both the consummate athlete and sportsman and an uncontrolled man capable of unleashing his repressed emotional and sexual desires on very young men.

It's not until almost the end of the evening that Gurney merges the two aspects of his character into one. When that happens, it's as close as Big Bill ever comes to a dramatic coup; Tilden collapsing into tears, unable to reconcile his unsportsmanlike behavior off the field with his own code of ethics, is also the one time the play approaches real insight.

Much of the rest is biography only occasionally touching beneath Tilden's surface. Sure, there's fun to be found - the play's comic highlight is the brief scene when Tilden, already an established tennis star, turns his eye toward the stage with hilarious (if not critic-pleasing) results. This demonstrates Tilden's external controlling nature at the expense of controlling himself - he can't see his own faults clearly enough to stop them - but it's not always exciting drama.

Big Bill is more effective when examining Tilden's life through the lens of tennis - the primary way he defined himself and, he admits, one of his few true loves. But even at scarcely more than 90 minutes, the rest of the play often seems padded, as if Gurney trying to make a full evening out of a less than full story. Once Tilden's beliefs are established as hypocritical, what's left for Gurney to do?

At least director Mark Lamos keeps the show's pacing brisk, ignoring most of the dramatic lulls the script provides. John Lee Beatty's stunningly extravagant tennis court-inspired set also helps, and Rui Rita's lighting, which transforms the set into a number of different locales, makes it even better. Jess Goldstein's crisp, clean, and period-appropriate costumes always seem just right.

So does John Michael Higgins as Tilden. Tall and physically and vocally expressive (even when affecting a meek voice, as he does here), Higgins projects a great amount of likeability even in Tilden's darkest moments; his breakdown scene is heart-rending. He's also eminently believable as a gentleman athlete, equally likely to take the officiators to task for bad calls (even when in his favor) as to chat with an opera star about the rigors of life in the public eye.

As Higgins is almost never offstage, the other cast members feel like little more than supporting players, though they're all fine. All the women in Tilden's life are played by Margaret Welsh, who effectively and humorously differentiates characters covering a wide range of social, economic, and cultural types. David Cromwell plays a number of authority roles - umpire, judge, and critic - with the proper commanding airs, and Stephen Rowe well plays more lateral influences on Tilden's life (like his brother or eventual lawyer). Alex Knold, Michael Esper, Donal Thoms-Cappello, and Jeremiah Miller effectively (if unspectacularly) play the younger men, primarily ball boys, on whom Tilden focuses much of his attention.

They are a constant presence, often assisting with scene and costume changes, and serving as a reminder of the real legacy Tilden has left behind. But in the final scene, Gurney unabashedly attempts to end the show with a celebration of Tilden's great sports accomplishments. Perhaps he feels that Tilden's dues as a pederast have long since been paid, and his good deeds for the sports world should not be entirely written off? Maybe, maybe not, but Big Bill never quite makes a compelling case either way.

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Lincoln Center Theater
Big Bill
Through May 16
Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge