January 27, 2018

"Balls" Falls Too Short of Its Ambitious Goals

People don't usually make too big a deal about a 45th anniversary. After all, the much more impressive-sounding 50th is so close. But the 1973 match between Billie Jean King, a 29-year-old tennis star and pioneering feminist; and Bobby Riggs, a 55-year-old tennis has-been and misogynistic prankster, has been getting all kinds of attention lately. 

The movie "Battle of the Sexes," as their match was billed, came out in September with last year's Oscar winner Emma Stone as King and the popular actor Steve Carell as Riggs. And now Balls, a new play running at the 59E59 Theaters through Feb. 25, is offering a highly-stylized stage version of the event.

Created by One Year Lease Theater, a company known for its physical productions, Balls goes to great lengths to recreate the King-Riggs match. The theater has been decked out by scenic designer Kristen Robinson to resemble the Houston Astrodome where the televised match took place, with covered chairs for audience members, a big, brightly lit scoreboard and the stage serving as the green-lawned center court.

Two slump-shouldered clowns greet theatergoers as they take their seats, an overt allusion to the circus-like event that surrounded the affair. Budget constraints apparently prevented the show from reproducing the players' entry onto the court in which King arrived on a litter carried by four brawny men and Riggs in a rickshaw pulled by barely-dressed women.

But the actual game is replicated almost minute by minute as Ellen Tamaki and Donald Corren, convincingly costumed and wigged by Kenisha Kelly, mimic each shot King and Riggs hit during the course of their three-set showdown.

Company member Richard Saudek served as the tennis coach and Natalie Lomonte choreographed the realistic movement. No balls are lobbed in the volleys but sound designer Brendan Aanes deserves a special shout out for matching the sound of a ball bouncing on the ground and whooshing over the net to each specific action.

Always confused by tennis scoring, I had a hard time following who was up and who was down but I was thoroughly engaged by the theatricality of it all. One moment that focuses solely on a ball moving across the court is sublime.

However, the show has more on its mind than being a live version of a YouTube experience. Like the match itself, it seeks to work on a metaphorical level and to make points about the gender politics of the past four decades.

At various points, the game fades into the background and attention is focused on a series of couples: Billie Jean's husband and her female lover, a twin brother and sister who share a mania for tennis and a disdain for homosexuality and the ball boy and girl whose 30-year relationship is anachronistically tracked from flirtation through divorce.

Each pair gets the chance to take center stage and comment on relations between the sexes. An unseen announcer throws in additional gender-related factoids that range from the birth of Bill Clinton's future paramour Monica Lewinsky in 1973 to the Supreme Court's upholding of the right to abortion with its Roe v. Wade decision that same year.

And I haven't even mentioned the appearances of athletes Chris Evert and Jim Brown or the references to the transgender pioneer Renèe Richards, although it's not clear why she's been invoked since she didn't make her transition until two years after the match.

That's a lot of stuff to cram into 85 minutes and, alas, none of the revelations are particularly fresh or insightful. And although the diverse company of actors, cast at times confusingly without regard for race, is energetic, it's also uneven.

There are too many moments when Balls resembles one of those school plays where the teacher insists that everyone has to have a part and get a chance to show off his or her skill whether it helps the production or not. In this case, one of the clowns juggles for no reason at all and another cast member leads a shaky version of the feminist anthem "I Am Woman."

Perhaps the problem may be that there were too many hands involved in the creation of so small a show (click here to read about the making of it).  Balls was directed by Ianthe Demos and Nick Flint and written by Kevin Armento and Bryony Lavery.  Doubles of this sort may work well in tennis but less so when it comes to making winning theater.

January 20, 2018

Why I Didn't Love "Stories By Heart"

When theater lovers want to express their deep devotion to an actor as formidably talented as John Lithgow, they often say they would be content to listen to him if he were just reading the phone book (not that anyone publishes those much anymore). 

I've been a big Lithgow fan too, applauding the virtuosity that ranges from his zaniness in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to the dramatic deftness of his recent Emmy-winning performance as Winston Churchill in the Netflix series "The Crown." But I'm now not so sure about the phone book thing because I barely made it through Stories by Heart, the one-man show Lithgow is doing at the Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre through March 4.

It may be sacrilege to say that because Lithgow is performing short stories written by Ring Lardner and P.G. Wodehouse, masters of the form and beloved by generations of readers for both their genial humor and their shrewd insights into what high school English teachers like to call the human condition.

The first act of Stories by Heart is devoted to Lardner's "Haircut," a monologue in which a small-town barber gossips about his neighbors as he shaves and shears a local newcomer. It starts off folksy and funny and then takes a sharp Hitchcockian turn into the darker byways of the human condition.

Wodehouse's "Uncle Fred Flits By" is a more fulsome farce about an eccentric aristocrat, his browbeaten nephew and the people they encounter during one of the uncle's free-spirited adventures. But it too makes instructive observations about the careless ways humans sometimes treat one another.

Lithgow performs both with gusto. Under Daniel Sullivan's light-handed direction, the actor uses his rubbery face, limber body and a passel of accents to impersonate all the characters from the chatty barber to a smart-alecky parrot.

Through it all, he's aided only by a handful of props that include an easy chair, a glass of water and a copy of "Tellers of Tales," a 1939 short story anthology edited by W. Somerset Maugham.

The book also provides the narrative glue for the evening. It is, Lithgow says, the actual taped-together volume that his dad Arthur, an itinerant pioneer in the regional theater movement, read to his four children when they were small and that Lithgow later read to his father toward the end of the older man's life (click here to read more about all of that).

Those reminiscences—the kids mesmerized by their father's bedtime storytelling, the old man lifted from his depression by the welcomed levity of familiar passages—are the emotional core of the evening. I wish there had been more of them.

For despite Lithgow's ebullient performance, these old-fashioned tales failed to hold my attention. I found my mind drifting off, particularly during the Wodehouse story, whose loopy characters and their bon mots proved too slight and slippery for me to grasp.

My fellow audience members were split. The man sitting next to my husband K giggled with delight at Uncle Fred's antics. The two couples in the row ahead of us left at intermission.

Still, the continuing love Lithgow feels for his father—and for the mystical power of storytelling—shines through. Seemingly unwilling to let go of his father, Lithgow has been performing various incarnations of this show across the country almost since Arthur died in 2004 at the age of 88. It's a profound tribute—and perhaps an apology—from a son who became more successful than his father in the profession they both revered.

And so despite my disappointment in Stories by Heart, its underlying story got to me. When I got home, I logged onto Amazon.com and downloaded Lithgow's 2011 memoir "Drama: An Actor's Education." 

It's a beautifully written book and, like the show, much of it is inspired by Lithgow's recollections of his father in his prime and in his decline when sharing the stories in "Tellers of Tales" helped give the old man the will to live. 

But "Drama" opens up to tell much more about these two ardent storytellers. And if you get the audiobook version, you can even hear the younger Lithgow tell it to you.

January 6, 2018

Dethroning "Farinelli and the King"

Is Mark Rylance the greatest actor of our time? Over the course of a three-decade career, he's won three Tonys, two Oliviers and an Oscar. Last year, the Queen knighted him for his service to the theater. And now, almost everyone seems to be cheering his performance as the bipolar 18th century Spanish monarch Philip V who finds his greatest solace in the singing of the titular opera singer in Farinelli and the King. Everyone that is except me.

Rylance has dazzled me before with his bravura performance in Jez Butterworth's epic Jerusalem (click here to read my review) and in the small show Nice Fish that he did two years ago at St. Ann's Warehouse (click here for my review of that). I've also liked him in movies like "Bridge of Spies" and TV series like "Wolf Hall." But this time out, Rylance relies too heavily on his bag of established tics (the eccentric line delivery, the deadpan stare) and on the tolerant affection of his audience.

Now I was charmed by Farinelli's opening scene in which the king displays his madness in a loopy conversation with a goldfish but I didn't buy Rylance's performance for one minute after that. Which meant I ended up not caring what happened to the king he was supposed to be bringing to life.

Part of the blame has to rest with the play itself, which was written by Claire van Kampen, who also happens to be Rylance's wife. In various interviews, van Kampen has talked about her delight in coming across the true tale of how Philip's queen brokered the therapeutic relationship between the king and the singer, a then-celebrated castrato who was mutilated before puberty to maintain the sweet high-pitched sound of his voice (click here to read more about the backstory).

But van Kampen's version of their story lacks tension or even heart. She makes a few faint attempts at the former, with the suggestion of a romantic connection between the queen and Farinelli (yes, it seems that castrati could have sex) but neither she nor director John Dove find a way to develop that storyline.

Nor do they dig into why Farinelli, who never again performed in public after singing for the king, would give up his career to become a courtier. And although they use the very smart conceit of having two actors play Farinelli, who in the play says he feels as though man and voice are separate entities, that too is left unexplored. The show is all tell and too little show.

Instead, van Kampen, a trained musician, focuses on creating opportunities for songs, primarily by Handel, to be sung throughout the performance. The result is kind of a high-class jukebox musical. And it comes with the same problems so many of them have: the narrative doesn't match up to the music.

The saving grace here is that the songs are sung by the countertenor Iestyn Davies. I'm nowhere near an expert on opera but even I could appreciate the beauty of Davies' falsetto voice (click here to read an interview with him and Sam Crane, the actor who plays the non-singing Farinelli).

And there were also other things to appreciate in Farinelli and The King. The production, which is scheduled to run at the Belasco Theatre through March 25, originated at Shakespeare's Globe in London and subscribes to that theater's dedication to using techniques from the Bard's time.

Most of the lighting, artfully designed by Paul Russell, is achieved by candle light (click here to read more about that). I got a particular kick out of watching stagehands, dressed in period garb, as they tended to the candles during the intermission. The sumptuously-painted backdrops are gorgeous, And the costumes by Jonathan Fensom and wigs by Campbell Young Associates delight the eye too.

But as beautiful as all of that is, that's not the primary reason I go to the theater. And I felt let down by the performances. They aren't bad. They're just blah. And I expect more from the greatest actor of our time.