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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - January 24, 2018

Ellen Tamaki and Donald Corren
Photo by Russ Rowland

Balls, opening tonight at 59E59 Theaters, is a rollicking, three-ring circus of a play that retells the story of the ultra-hyped man-vs-woman tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King that held 90 million viewers glued to their television sets back in 1973. Uniquely among the numerous times the story has been recounted in print and on screen (there's even an opera about it), this production makes the case for why the event has become so thoroughly embedded into our collective consciousness.

On the face of it, the actual primetime televised encounter at the Houston Astrodome was little more than an absurd publicity stunt promulgated by Mr. Riggs, a self-styled hustler, "male chauvinist pig," and pretty much an outdated player in the realm of professional tennis. Although he had once been a formidable competitor and had won Wimbledon back in 1939, it was now more than three decades later. Riggs was 55 years old and well past his prime when he challenged the 29-year-old, still very active women's tennis pro Billie Jean King to the $100,000 winner-take-all contest. For all of Riggs's chest-beating brouhaha, in the end Ms. King handily won in three straight sets.

With it's double-entendre title, Balls quickly sets us up for the expected theme in which men are know-it-all idiots, while capable and competent women are forced to prove themselves repeatedly. That the production coincides with the rapidly re-emerging women's rights movement only adds to its significance. But there is much more here than the re-creation of the match, itself so marvelously choreographed by movement director Natalie Lomonte. Balls is a work of consummate collaboration that not only immerses us in the sights and sounds we would have encountered at the Astrodome, but also places that singular moment within its historic context.

There's a lot to explore in 85 minutes, as counted down minute-by-minute on the overhanging scoreboard. The play's co-authors, Bryony Lavery and Kevin Armento, move well beyond a case study of sexism to incorporate issues of reproductive rights (the Roe v Wade decision came out that same year), sexual orientation, gender identity, racism, and ageism. Between King and Riggs alone, the competitors' lives cover all the bases except for racism and gender identity, though the production manages to bring these in as well. We're told, for example, that "Althea Gibson, the first professional African American tennis player, wonders when there will be a match symbolic of her equality." There's also a passing reference to Renée Richards, a transgender woman and tennis player who was denied entry into the U. S. Opens not long after the King/Riggs event. So, yes, brace yourself for a dizzying onslaught of content.

As you enter the theater, you will see that it has been set up to suggest we are at the Astrodome. Each seat has covers that match those of the stadium, and Kristen Robinson's compact tennis-court set, the bright lighting provided by Mike Riggs, and the terrific sound work of Brendan Aanes that perfectly captures the whoosh and thwack of the tennis balls make for an all-encompassing theatrical design. Sometimes you'll watch King and Riggs engaged in back-and-forth volleys; sometimes you'll see only one side of the game (and listen to the player's self-talk); and sometimes you'll see things from the ball's perspective. You will also hear interesting tidbits about the game of tennis itself or even about events that are going on in the outside world, like the fact that Monica Seles and Monica Lewinsky were both born in that same year.

All in all, this is an exceptionally well-wrought ensemble piece, intricate enough to require two directors (Ianthe Demos and Nick Flint), as well as two production companies behind it (One Year Lease Theater Company and Stages Repertory Theatre). That the co-playwrights and the co-directors are made up of female/male teams does not seem coincidental, given the nature of the work and the other pairings in the play. In addition to the stars in the center court (Ellen Tamaki as Billie Jean and Donald Corren as Bobby), we've got Cherry (Cristina Pitter) and Terry (Danny Bernardy), rowdy brother/sister fans hanging out in the stands, stuffing their faces with popcorn and candy, and cheering opposite sides. There is also the ongoing saga of the ballgirl (Elisha Mudly) and ballboy (Alex J. Gould), whose lives we follow both within and outside of the time of the match, from their high school days through a marriage, divorce, and beyond. Oh, and we mustn't forget the two tennis clowns, Olivia McGiff and Richard Saudek. Finally, rounding out the pairs are Billie Jean's husband Larry (Danté Jeanfelix) and Billie Jean's hairstylist and secret lover Marilyn (Zakiya Iman Markland). The former would spill the beans about his wife's abortion, while the latter would wind up outing their relationship in a palimony lawsuit following their breakup. High drama, indeed!

Ultimately, there may be little more to glean than what we already know about this moment in history, this half-joking, half-serious tennis match from 44 years ago. Bobby Riggs died in 1995, while Billie Jean King remains a potent figure in the fight for equality for women. Balls may be merely another piece of the spectacle, but you'll be hard pressed to find a better retelling of a story that has obtained near-mythic status as "The Battle of the Sexes."

Through February 25
59E59 Theater A, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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