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Review: The ‘Battle of the Sexes’ Carried Out on the Tennis Court in ‘BALLS’ at 59E59

BALLS

By Justin Sharon, Contributing Writer, January 25, 2018

The “Battle of the Sexes” between tennis stars Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in September 1973 is enjoying quite a cultural revival. Having recently been the subject of a well-received movie starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell, the narrative now switches to the stage. Manhattan’s 59E59 Theaters launches its 2018 Subscription Series with BALLS, written by Kevin Armento and Bryony Lavery and directed by Ianthe Demos and Nick Flint.

From a distance of over four decades, the degree to which this Houston Astrodome encounter between feminist icon and male chauvinist embedded itself into the zeitgeist is difficult to convey. Howard Cosell breathlessly described the unfolding action before hordes of polyester-era luminaries like Blythe Danner and Glen Campbell. The worldwide television audience was estimated at 90 million.

This production, with Ellen Tamaki and Donald Corren as the leads, is marked by bursts of intense physicality and madcap energy. The intimate 195-seat theater echoes to the tunes of Reddy and Roberta. Wooden rackets, along with references to Roe vs. Wade and Ms. Magazine, further combine to compellingly recreate the ‘Me’ Decade, clothed in palimony suits and bell bottoms.

Ellen Tamaki, Richard Saudek, Danté Jeanfelix, Elisha Mudly, Alex J. Gould, Richard Saudek, Donald Corren in 'BALLS;' photo: Russ Rowland.

(l. to r.) Ellen Tamaki, Richard Saudek, Danté Jeanfelix, Elisha Mudly, Alex J. Gould, Richard Saudek, Donald Corren in ‘BALLS;’ photo: Russ Rowland.

Space City provides the setting, but this play relies less on stars than a solid ensemble cast of ten, many of whom do double duty. Danté Jeanfelix portrays both Jimmy Connors and Billie’s husband Larry King (not that one). Elisha Mudly, meanwhile, assumes the roles of Chris Evert and a ballgirl alike. The latter’s net-side romantic squabbles with her male counterpart played by Alex J. Gould is one of a dizzying array of subplots.

Indeed, the sheer number of disparate threads shoehorned into a discursive script does make one pine for the laser focus that King brought to her matches. The 1973 encounter actually ended swiftly, in three straight sets, but here halting action occasionally accompanies the halter dresses.

BALLS nonetheless has much to recommend it. Olivia McGiff and Richard Saudek merit special mention as court jester clowns. A pair of Astrodome spectators dispense retrospectively amusing bon mots about ’70’s icons (“Give me some of that old fashioned masculinity. Like Bruce Jenner”). And, with the Women’s March on New York City taking place but two blocks from the theater, at literally the same time as the performance I attended, many of the equality issues from 45 years ago clearly remain relevant.

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BALLS produced by One Year Lease Theater Company and Stages Repertory Theatre at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, NYC through February 25, 2018. Written by Kevin Armento and Bryony Lavery. Directed by Ianthe Demos and Nick Flint; movement direction by Natalie Lomonte; set design by Kristen Robinson; lighting design by Mike Riggs; sound design by Brendan Aanes; costume design by Kenisha Kelley. Cast: Danny Bernardy, Donald Corren, Alex J. Gould, Danté Jeanfelix, Zakiya Iman Markland, Olivia McGiff, Elisha Mudly, Cristina Pitter, Richard Saudek, Ellen Tamaki.

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Cover: (l. to r.) Ellen Tamaki and Donald Corren in ‘BALLS;’ photo: Russ Rowland.


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