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John Michael Higgins in Big Bill
(Photo © Richard Feldman)
What becomes a legend most, his achievements or the scandals that cast a pall over his entire career? A.R. Gurney's uneven new play Big Bill tackles the life of celebrated tennis great William Tatem Tilden II. Recognized for almost single-handedly revolutionizing the sport during the first half of the 20th century, Tilden remains a complicated and problematic figure; although he was hailed as a consummate sportsman, he also served time for sexual indiscretions with teenage boys. In Big Bill, Gurney captures many of Tilden's contradictions but ultimately fails to craft a compelling play from the raw material of his subject's life.

At the center of the production is John Michael Higgins as Tilden. A charismatic performer, Higgins successfully portrays both the earnestness and vanity of the tennis star known to the world as "Big Bill." His Tilden is a man who's constantly performing for others; Higgins strikes many characteristic poses, such as standing proud with chest puffed out and hands on hips. On the rare occasions when Tilden actually demonstrates real emotion or vulnerability, Higgins rises to the task. In particular, a conversation with a judge (David Cromwell) late in the play lends a depth to the character that's hitherto unglimpsed.

Gurney has peppered the play with background information on the changes that the sport of tennis has undergone in the last century, many of which are attributed to Tilden. Big Bill's flamboyant personality and penchant for interrupting the game to dispute what he considered bad calls paved the way for the tantrums of later tennis stars like John McEnroe. At the time when Tilden began his career, tennis was an amateur's game; in order to keep their amateur status and thus be eligible to compete in the most prestigious tournaments, the players were not allowed to make money from their sport. This was particularly difficult for Tilden because, while his family was once wealthy, his by-then-deceased father had squandered most of the family fortune.

The conflicts arising from Tilden's desperate need to earn a living and the restrictions he had to contend with are a recurring thread within the play. For example, Tilden was taken to task for allowing the manufacturers of a tennis racquet company to produce a new line of racquets bearing his name. Frustrated by his efforts to earn income from his life's work, he became more and more demanding in regard to the perks that he was allowed. "I'm a star," he contends in Gurney's script, "the first ever in this sport, and it's high time I looked the part."

The play skips backwards and forwards in time. It starts with Tilden in his prime but soon flashes forward decades into the future to show a student researching the tennis star at his alma mater Penn State, only to discover that the library had voted in the 1950s to remove all books by and about Tilden from its shelves. The reasons for such censorship become clear as the play alights on Tilden's late-in-life encounters with the law and his incarceration for sex offenses. The fractured chronology of Tilden's life and career is most likely meant as a way to enliven the presentation of biographical material within the play; in this, it only partially succeeds.

All of the actors besides Higgins play multiple roles. The characters parade by in such quick succession that it is often difficult to keep track of them all and/or figure out the time periods to which they correspond. Also, the ages of certain characters, particularly the ball boys whom Tilden adores, seem indeterminate. We know that one named Fritzie is 18 years old but, presumably, a number of the others are not. A quartet of handsome, boyish looking actors -- Alex Knold, Michael Esper, Donal Thoms-Capello, and Jeremiah Miller -- play all of the younger males with whom Tilden interacts.

Gurney seems to want to present his play as a tragedy, highlighting as he does the immense hubris that led to Tilden's eventual downfall. However, the skipping around in time and the sketchily drawn supporting characters contribute to the overall feeling that Big Bill lacks substance. Director Mark Lamos is partly to blame as the production never picks up enough momentum to sustain interest. Although it raises provocative questions around closeted sexuality, sports figures, and morality, the play never delivers on its promise.

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