John Michael Higgins in Big Bill(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
John Michael Higgins in Big Bill
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
There's something thrilling about that moment -- and it doesn't happen often -- when a creative artist uses his or her craft to transcend reality. It happens at the end of A.R. Gurney's Big Bill, the story of the tennis star who transformed the game from a gentlemen's diversion into a popular sport. A legendary sports hero in his day, Tilden was also a closeted homosexual who ran afoul of the law in his later years and twice went to jail for his advances upon underage boys. Tilden may have died a ruined man but Gurney will not have it. Through sheer force of artistry, built upon the structure of the play, he pulls off an ending that is as bold as it is moving. Say what you will about the play; the finale is one of the most theatrically satisfying moments you'll find in the theater in this or any other year.

And the rest of the play is pretty damned good, too. As Tilden, John Michael Higgins gives one of this year's most indelible performances. Moving effortlessly back and forth in time, he plays Tilden over a period of approximately 40 years, from dimly self-aware young man to celebrity athlete and, finally, to humiliated has-been. But the key element that Higgins captures throughout is Tilden's essential decency.

It's an aspect of Gurney's art in Big Bill that Tilden's pedophilia is tempered with sympathy. In one sense, this is a subversive play that asks you to forgive odious behavior; but it is also a compassionate play which asks you to understand that Tilden had few choices because of the world and the time in which he lived. Unfortunately, Gurney makes this point rather baldly. He also has a character say that Tilden might not have been a great tennis player who loved the game dearly had he had another outlet for that love. Even if this is true, one wishes that Gurney hadn't felt the need to lead the audience by the nose. But, these two moments aside, this is a beautifully crafted work, elegantly directed by Mark Lamos.

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Steven Pasquale and Penny Fuller in Beautiful Child(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Steven Pasquale and Penny Fuller in Beautiful Child
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Halfway Home

Both A.R. Gurney's Big Bill and Nicky Silver's Beautiful Child concern men who are sexually attracted to young boys. Both plays are produced by subscription-based theater companies; the former is at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater and the latter is at the Vineyard Theatre on East 15th Street. This is a lucky thing because, when one mentions the word pedophile in conjunction with a play, it isn't going to help sell tickets except for possible group sales to NAMBLA. But plays by Gurney and Silver are, ipso facto, important works that ought to be seen. These are among the important playwrights of our time and anything they do is worth a look.

Having looked at Silver's play, we have to conclude that, following a rich and promising first act, the second act runs amok. Beautiful Child is the story of a 30-year-old man, a teacher and painter, who comes home to tell his upper middle class parents that he's in trouble: He has become involved with one of his students, an eight-year old boy. At the performance we attended, there was an audible gasp from the audience at the moment when the boy's age was revealed.

The first act has moments of sensitivity, lovely writing, and some raucous humor. The play is highlighted by Steven Pasquale's almost lyrical performance as the young teacher-painter. The entire cast excels, including George Grizzard as a caring father who happens to be a philandering husband; Penny Fuller as his long-suffering wife; Alexandra Gersten Vassilaros as the Grizzard character's desperate ditz of a mistress; and Kaitlin Hopkins in two roles that demonstrate her versatility. But all of that fine acting can't save a second act that is derailed by Silver's out of control mixture of reality, memory, and over-the-top plotting. In the end, the play's greatest flaw is that it loses its grip on reality. For all their outrageousness, Silver's most successful plays -- Pterodactyles, Raised in Captivity, and even The Food Chain -- always keep at least one toe, if not one foot, in the real world. Beautiful Child does not.

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Cady Huffman(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Cady Huffman
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
The Producer

Tony Award winner Cady Huffman (The Producers) has gone into the movie business! With Amiee Turner, she has co-produced and is one of the four stars of a brand new movie that is now making the rounds of the film festival circuit. Huffman has stayed true to her theatrical roots: The movie is based on a Theresa Rebeck play called Sunday on the Rocks and not only does it star four theater actresses (Huffman, Turner, Julie White, and Suzzanne Douglas), it's directed by veteran theater actor Joe Morton in his film directorial debut. To nail down the theatrical antecedents of this movie, consider that Huffman and Turner met when they were on Broadway together in The Will Rogers Follies.

The movie reveals the secrets of its characters when, in desperation, one of them opens a bottle of scotch for breakfast one Sunday morning. Made for a mere $120,000, Sunday on the Rocks is that rare bird: a movie that gives four large, meaty roles to actresses who are experienced and talented enough to know what to do with them. It's the sort of film that galvanizes conversation. Provocative and honestly profane, it's sure to burn up the festival circuit before eventually being released to theaters here in New York.

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Leslie Orofino
Leslie Orofino
Fields of Glory

Speaking of strong women, Leslie Orofino recently concluded a cabaret act at Danny's Skylight Room devoted to the work of lyricist Dorothy Fields. Orofino's patter was peppered with interesting facts and anecdotes, and she did a particularly good job of setting up her songs. Her carefully crafted script went a long way toward pulling the audience into her warm, engaging show.

Quiet ballads didn't suit Orofino nearly so well as the bawdy dame numbers; give her something big and broad to play and she's dynamite, lit and ready to explode. In the final analysis, it isn't her voice that does the trick. She sold songs that were purchased at retail by an audience fully won over by her personality.

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegelentertainment@msn.com.]