If you somehow escaped the movie trailers and magazine articles, Balls is here to let you know: a big 'ol tennis showdown between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs happened in Houston. Yes, the Battle of the Sexes is back in a big way, this time in a world premiere from New York’s One Year Lease Theater Company and Houston’s Stages Repertory Theatre.
Rather than take a straightforward, contained approach to that day in the Astrodome, tennis is merely the fulcrum for the plot that skips between at least five overlapping storylines exploring the women's movement. There is the match, yes, but there is also a romance between a ball boy and a ball girl, King's splashy affair with her "traveling secretary," numerous over-involved spectators, and, last but not least, the entirety of human history. Oh, and a set of clowns. That's not to say all these storylines are necessary (they're not), but it's certainly a marvel how they ultimately weave together.
Things start at The Beginning—capital B—as a cheeky voiceover finds early man and woman exploring each other's respective ball-shaped appendages; lewd wordplay is, ahem, low-hanging fruit throughout this hilarious script, and writers Bryony Lavery and Kevin Armento head straight for it. But as things quickly launch into the events of September 20, 1973, the play wisely avoids well-worn historical details about the match. After all, there's a movie about that.
Between serves, Billie Jean King, the feminist champion played by Ellen Tamaki, bellows expository platitudes. ("This is about equality!”) Chauvinist Bobby Riggs (Donald Corren) at one point delivers a frenzied internal monologue bemoaning his fading relevance and advanced age. (“Jesus H. Christ on a cross, they’re calling you a senior!” he says to himself.) By and large, these would-be plot vehicles instead serve as the production's muscle, masterfully pounding those imaginary balls back and forth to create the outline of a story others are left to fill in.
Speaking of balls, no actual projectiles are exchanged, although each pantomimed shot is supposed to precisely mirror what happened in the 1973 match. While I can't speak to the truth of that, I can say the physicality of the performance is staggering, courtesy of Movement Director Natalie Lamonte. The audience witnesses 90 minutes of tennis in fits and starts, complete with grunts and foot shuffling and smack talk. Each serve and every dribble is perfectly timed to a satisfying thwack or pitter-patter sound effect (courtesy of Sound Designer Brendan Aanes), and the freestanding net is maneuvered to accommodate a variety of perspectives; in one claustrophobic scene, the net swirls back and forth and you hear King's heart thump thump as she realizes the overwhelming stakes of her performance. With the combination of a small theater and masterful production team, moments like this conjure a captivating, visceral spectacle from end to end.
The social commentary is hashed out in earnest through supporting characters, like brother-sister spectator duo Cherry and Terry, played by Cristina Pitter and Danny Bernardy. After rolling into the Astrodome for a little Houston fan service ("Gosh darn I-10 West!"), Cherry becomes a whooping, hollering King fangirl. In one daydream, rose-colored light shimmers across the stage as Cherry swings and flows in unison on the court with King, clearly imagining the tennis player as a stand-in for herself in some real back-and-forth between herself and her chauvinist brother. Terry, donning a Sugar Daddy t-shirt, sees Riggs in similar but opposite terms—a bulwark for an embattled gender hierarchy. Ultimately, it's Pitter's electric, slapstick performance that makes Cherry the standout role—a relatable stand-in for America's own stop-and-start relationship with feminism.
I say stop-and-start because of the other significant supporting duo of King's husband, Larry (Danté Jeanfelix), and her secretary/lover, Marilyn (Zakiya Iman Markland). Jeanfelix plays a schmuck, taking credit (?!) for King's controversial abortion and embodying the same performative woke-ness you roll your eyes at while scrolling through Facebook. Marilyn, of course, is King's lover, whose relationship would eventually make waves as King's sexual orientation rankled sponsors and a less-tolerant public. When Cherry discovers her champion to be a lesbian, she immediately jumps ship. It's a bittersweet reminder of America's limited appetite for acceptance.
Exhaustingly, those are only two of the side plots running parallel to the match: The ball boy (Alex J. Gould) and ball girl (Elisha Mudly) live out a complicated love affair that stretched into the future to include marriage, kids, divorce, lesbian awakening and the election of Donald Trump. A recurring sideshow of celebrity spectators Chrissie Evert and Jim Brown is funny at first but quickly becomes clutter, a B-list namedrop that wears out its welcome. Then there are those darn clowns, which, while a hoot, seem like a plot contrivance to facilitate scene changes.
All these moving parts force your brain to work overtime to piece it all together, which doesn't align with the on-the-nose quality of the play. For instance, Balls makes its message clear when Marilyn takes to the stage for a soulful rendition of "I Am Woman." King, in an imagined sequence, whacks away balls served from machines labeled "Gay Rights," "Women's Rights" and "Abortion Rights." Nothing about this production is subtle or implied, and the campy delightfulness could benefit from a leaner script.
Walking out of the theater, I contemplated how this story maps onto the actual events of four decades ago. It seems clear the actual match possessed precisely none of the historical weightiness the play imputes (it was a marketing stunt), but I'm not sure that matters. However fanciful, it's a thoughtful inventory of where we are and where we came from in terms of gender equality, and the play is just plain fun. I'd return just to see Corren work himself into a froth on the court as a bumbling Riggs, or Pitter practically faint onstage when she first sees her hero.
Most of all, I want to see if I missed any puns.
Thru Oct. 29. Tickets from $25. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy. 713-527-0123. More info and tickets at stagestheatre.com.