To See or Not to See: Balls
According to Kevin Armento and Bryony Lavery’s new play Balls, so many of our miscommunications and conflicts arise from, well, balls. Using the literal balls of the now-legendary tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs to start the story, the play devolves into a convoluted meditation on figurative balls, discussing gender roles, politics, and discrimination.
The driving force of the play lies with Billie Jean King (a very strong Ellen Tamaki) and Bobby Riggs (Donald Corren). The play moves forward with each set within their match. Circling Billie and Bobby are also several other couples that the play examines: fans Terry (Danny Bernardy) and Cherry (Cristina Pitter); ballboy and girl (Alex J. Gould and Elisha Mudly); clownboy and girl (Richard Saudek and Olivia McGiff); and, finally, Marilyn Barnett (Zakiya Iman Markland, wonderful in the role), Billie’s secret lover, and Billie’s husband Larry King (Danté Jeanfelix).
We see Marilyn and Larry silently fight over Billie; Marilyn gives an impassioned speech about wanting to be seen as an equal in Billie’s life (it is one of the best parts of Balls, heartbreaking and honest). Cherry and Terry staunchly support their gender counter parts in tennis.
It is when the play deviates away from the tennis court and the story surrounding Billie and Bobby, however, where things go off-kilter. The ballboy and ballgirl go from teens to tired (and argumentative) married couple to divorced. Their apparent spilt centers on the female’s role of wife and mother that chafes against her desire and decision to go to school and be more than the roles she expected to fill.
Additionally, the voice of the tennis announcer will go through historic moments, births of well-known women and men in history, as more examples of women’s rights and gender inequality. To top it off, there is the underlying gay rights movement that is attached to Billie that becomes another topic touched upon in Balls. Needless to say, there are a whole host of topics and plot points that, if curated a bit more and whittled down with more of a focus, would make this production more precise and polished.
While the play itself needs more work, other parts of the production were solid. The set design by Kristen Robinson was great. Even the scenes that did not literally take place on a tennis court fit the space. And, of course, the movement direction by Natalie Lomonte was spot-on; re-creating the tennis match, shot-for-shot is no small undertaking.
Despite Balls‘s shortcomings, it is definitely a play that will make you think a bit about how far we’ve come with women’s rights…and how far we’ve yet to go.
For more information and tickets for Balls, playing at 59E59 Theaters, click here.
Photo Credit: Russ Rowland