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Big Bill

Apparently, I reached across the net.
---Bill Tilden admitting his sexual misdemeanor to a judge in terms of the game with which he's identified.
John Michael Higgins
John Michael Higgins as "Big Bill" Tilden
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
I saw this A.R. Gurney bio-drama about tennis legend Bill Tilden (1893-1953) at the Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer and found it eminently watchable, though it seemed to me that it might stand some tweaking to deepen the central character before transferring to New York. Now that it's transferred to the Mitzi Newhouse, it's still watchable, though I could detect no tweaking.

While the Mitzi Newhouse Theater is larger than Williamstown's Nikos Stage, it has the same configuration and John Lee Beatty's terrific grassy set still works beautifully for the time hopping story telling. Mark Lamos once again directs and with the exception of several minor changes, the outstanding Williamstown cast is back and, if anything, even better than before.

While the story about a tennis player may seem like a departure for the contemporary theater's chief chronicler of W.A.S.P. culture, it's actually a natural addition to Gurney's oeuvre. William Tatem Tilden II was very much an upper middle class Protestant. His father was a Philadelphia Main Line businessman who squandered his fortune which left his son with a heritage of upper class snobbishness but in a decidedly un-upper class financial situation.

It was Tilden Junior's good fortune to discover that he excelled at wielding a tennis racket instead of the cocktail glass more usually found clasped in Gurnean hands. Thus "Junie", the nickname his father bestowed on him unaware that it was especially painful for someone with his son's sexual proclivities, became "Big Bill" -- winner of seven U.S. championship, the first American to win Wimbledon and also taught, lectured and wrote books. He was the epitome of the honorable good sport (famously losing the next point if he thought a call was wrongly given to him) but also a real showman, forerunner of celebrity tennis players, but without the shower of profitable endorsements that contribute to today's play-for-payola sports culture.

Big Bill is enjoyable, if only for this nostalgic look at a long-gone type of non-commercial sportsmanship. But Gurney did not write this play for tennis buffs, though no doubt many of them will want to see it. (I would be surprised if the members of the Forest Hills Tennis Club, whose entrance hall photos include one of Tilden, hadn't already bought a block of tickets). While Gurney has peppered his script with tennis metaphors what he's aboutt is to reveal the warts and wrinkles beneath the smooth, well-mannered white Anglo-Saxon Protestant lives he knows so well, this time expanding his view into the arena of a well known figure's public and private image.

Tilden's story is ideally suited to this examination of a much admired celebrity with a less than admirable private life. Contrary to the white tennis gear he advocated to reflect the purity of the game he played so well and honorably, the tennis star's private life played out in a much darker shade. For him, love off the tennis court meant "the love that dare not speak its name" -- worse still, he sought out that love with his often under-aged ball boys. While his secret life was long swept under the rug, his habit of picking up teenagers in the street, landed him in jail several times -- a sad finale for a man who reached the heights only to become a falling star.

Mr. Gurney couldn't have wished for a better actor than John Michael Higgins to bring out the complexities of Tilden's character. Higgins literally charges onto the stage like a house guest at the estate of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby (his impeccable good looks and mysterious private life earned him yet another nickname: "The Gatsby of Tennis"). He's got the grace of a dancer, the passion of an actor. He also loves his celebrity and friendship with the rich and famous. No wonder that he took a turn at producing and acting -- the last badly, but most amusingly so in the play.

Since the construct of the play jumps backward and forward in time, Higgins has to constantly transform himself from a vigorous young tennis player to a man facing the consequences of his unorthodox private life (well he doesn't really, since Gurney portrays him as remarkably naive throughout most of his travails). Most remarkably Higgins manages to age twenty years as needed, simply by donning a pair of glasses and a bulky, ill-fitting camel's hair coat. That coat is just one example of Jess Goldstein's skill for creating character defining costumes.

A small but very able supporting cast enriches the story by playing a variety of characters. David Cromwell is as outstanding as I remember him from Williamstown, especially in his chief role as a stern yet sympathetic judge. Stephen Rowe adeptly switches from Tilden's younger brother, to his lawyer, to a very funny working class guy dragged by his tennis-smitten son to one of Tilden's matches. Margaret Welsh single-handedly takes on a band of women which includes opera singer Mary Garden, the French tennis champion Suzanne Lenglen and a woman who, with her son, became Tilden's most loyal friends in his time of need. Jeremiah Miller, who's a New York cast addition (as are the other two ball boys) is also excellent.

Gurney, like the man he has here brought back to life, is an expert at telling a story with a wide appeal. His delivery of that story may not be as powerful as Tilden's famous cannonball serve, but it's got enough power to clear the net.
Big Bill
Written by A.R. Gurney
Directed by Mark Lamos
Cast: John Michael Higgins (William Tatem Tilden II), David Cromwell (Umpire, Judge and others), Stephen Rowe (Herb, Maddox and others), Margaret Welsh (Mary Garden, Suzanne Lenglen and others), Alex Knold (Student, Ball Boy and others), Michael Esper (Pete, Ball Boy and others), Donal Thoms-Cappello (Jimmy, Ball Boy and others) and Jeremiah Miller (Arthur, Ball Boy and others).
Set Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design: Jess Goldstein
Lighting Design: Rui Rita

Sound Design: Scott Stauffer
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission
Mitzi Newhouse, 150 W. 65th St. 212/239-6200 or
From 2/06/03 to 5/15/04; opening 2/22/03.Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on February 25th press performance

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