Thwap. Thwap. Thwap. The civilized sound of tennis balls being struck is a recurring motif in the aural landscape of A.R. Gurney's new play about Bill Tilden. Equally pervasive, unfortunately, is the quiet drone of information being dispensed in little tidy nuggets. That soporific sound, the bane of many a bio play, is a persistent problem with Gurney's informative but inert romp through the life of the country's first tennis superstar.

Thwap. Thwap. Thwap. The civilized sound of tennis balls being struck is a recurring motif in the aural landscape of A.R. Gurney’s new play about Bill Tilden. Equally pervasive, unfortunately, is the quiet drone of information being dispensed in little tidy nuggets. That soporific sound, the bane of many a bio play, is a persistent problem with Gurney’s informative but inert romp through the life of the country’s first tennis superstar.

Audiences ignorant of Tilden’s significance to the history of the sport will come away enlightened. They’ll learn that Tilden was born in Philly late in the 19th century, the son of a prominent businessman who later fell on hard times. Celebrated as the quintessential gentleman sportsman, he rose to prominence as an amateur and was exploited by the all-powerful U.S. Lawn Tennis Assn., at the time a circuit of private clubs. The organization insisted that Tilden avoid the corrupting influence of money (endorsements, even unpaid, were frowned upon) even as it reaped a windfall from his growing fame.

The play also examines, a little gingerly, Tilden’s troubled private life. He rose to fame at a time when it was impossible for a public figure to acknowledge his or her homosexuality. Rumors spread when Tilden went professional and began to bring on tour his handsome young ball boys. Later, Tilden tangled with the law over assignations with minors and was imprisoned more than once.

As life stories go, Tilden’s certainly appears to be a potentially absorbing one. Aside from the storybook success and illicit sex, there’s a fair amount glamour: Tilden taught the game to movie stars and befriended opera singers. He wrote books and even went on the stage — playing Dracula, no less, to excoriating reviews.

But Gurney’s play, skipping freely around the tennis court of time, fails to shape a strong narrative out of Tilden’s complicated, compartmentalized life. The jumbled chronology may have been devised to avoid the plodding effect of a more straightforward approach — or to reinforce the idea that Tilden remained, in some ways, a man whose emotional development was arrested in adolescence. But it’s more confusing than illuminating, and we still end up at the standard funeral finale, in which the absence of mourners is sorrowfully noted (“Goddamit, he deserves a better sendoff!”).

The steady barrage of information being imparted rarely lets up long enough for us to really get inside the character’s skin, as neat bits of psychology or biography are lobbed at us in virtually every scene. Bounding fleetly on and off the stage, John Michael Higgins gives a hearty, sunny performance in the title role — one tinged with gentle shadows in the late going, of course. But as depicted here, Tilden is a sweet, callow, rather shallow figure who rarely exhibits the kind of forceful personality you’d expect. That may be authentic (Gurney cites several books as reference points in the Playbill), but it makes for a hollow core at the center of the play, where a charismatic figure needs to stand.

Still, there are poignant moments in director Mark Lamos’ production. Tilden’s relationship with a widow and her son, who gave him a home toward the end of his life, brings out the character’s essential loneliness. (The widow is played with quiet warmth by Margaret Welsh, who is less successful impersonating diva Mary Garden and French tennis ace Suzanne Lenglen; Stephen Rowe and David Cromwell give excellent support in various other roles.)

And Tilden’s naivete has its nobly touching aspects: Initially, he refuses his lawyer’s advice to deny outright one of the charges brought against him, vowing that it would be unsportsmanlike to wriggle out of the consequences.

The production is beautifully designed, with Jess Goldstein providing lots of crisp, cream-colored tennis togs. John Lee Beatty’s simple set fills the stage floor with a tennis lawn and provides a panoramic blue sky as a backdrop. Summery and comforting when it’s lit in bright yellows by Rui Rita, the set becomes an empty expanse of gray when cast in more somber colors. It’s an apt visual metaphor for the stark mixture of light and shade in Tilden’s life.

Big Bill

Mitzi Newhouse Theater; 287 seats; $60

Production

A Lincoln Center Theater presentation of a play in one act by A.R. Gurney. Directed by Mark Lamos.

Creative

Set, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Rui Rita; sound, Scott Stauffer; stage manager, Fredric H. Orner. Opened Feb. 22, 2004. Reviewed Feb. 19. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

William Tate Tilden II - John Michael Higgins Umpire/Judge - David Cromwell Herb/Maddox - Stephen Rowe Mary Garden/Suzanne Lenglen - Margaret Welsh Student/Ball Boy - Alex Knold Pete/Ball Boy - Michael Esper Jimmy/Ball Boy - Donal Thoms-Capello Arthur/Ball Boy - Jeremiah Miller
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