Playwrights Kevin Armento and Bryony Lavery take the well-known facts that have been explored in documentaries and in the feature film Battle of the Sexes and shovel on a cascade of imagined sub plots, heavy-handed theatrical techniques and sociological trimmings. The opening voice-over prologue is a wry pseudo-scientific lecture about men and woman. This narrator sounds like Jane Lynch at her most sarcastic and it’s supposed to be funny but falls flat. The strident tone of the show is set.
Before it begins, 70’s pop tunes are loudly played. The theater is brightly lit and the seats are yellow, orange and red all suggesting The Houston Astrodome. Milling about dressed in vintage tennis attendant outfits are a male and female clown who carry on and mildly interact with the audience. The clowns later appear in the show.
Scenic designer Kristen Robinson’s fabulous tennis court set is deservedly the center of attention as actors hold tennis rackets and mime hitting balls. The net is shifted around to suggest the passage of time and varying locales.
Directors Ianthe Demos and Nick Flint and movement director Natalie Lomonte go full throttle in creating a non-stop vaudeville-style presentation. The large cast is in constant motion on stage, in the aisles of the theater and seated in the theater. There’s a big dance sequence to a 70’s pop tune and at one point a cast member sings Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman.” Nothing registers as organic or significant and it all comes across as meaningless filler. The talented cast is spurred on to deliver exaggerated characterizations.
Wearing just the right wigs and accessories are Donald Corren as Riggs and Ellen Tamaki as King who both deliver credible and engaging performances.
Alex J. Gould and Elisha Mudly winningly play “Ballboy” and “Ballgirl” who morph into a troubled Texas couple for tangential parallel plot points.
The dynamic Danté Jeanfelix makes an impression as Mr. King and football star Jim Brown. Zakiya Iman Markland grapples with the piece’s silly tone and manages to offer an affective performance as King’s girlfriend. Despite their cartoonish bumpkin roles, the comedic gifts of Cristina Pitter and Danny Bernardy are evident. Olivia McGiff and Richard Saudek are the kinetic clowns.
Mike Riggs’ lighting design and Brendan Aanes’s sound design are both accomplished and contribute to the production’s high tech dazzle.
Costume designer Kenisha Kelly provides a colorful array of outfits that authentically capture the look of the early 1970’s.
Balls does skim the drama of the situation. The flamboyant Bobby Riggs was a restless 55-year-old retired tennis star desperate for attention. Billie Jean King was an emerging tennis champion who was secretly gay and had a female lover while married to a man. When it focuses on these simple human elements, Balls has sparks of interest. However, it goes off on inane tangents with the aim of connecting the events to a contemporary cultural sensibility and is a crashing bore.
Balls (through February 25, 2018)
One Year Lease Theater Company and Stages Repertory Theatre
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission