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This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the April 28, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New York Review: ‘Big Bill’

The umpire calls out the final score at a tennis match in an exclusive country club. The crowd cheers. Although it feels like we are in the stands (thanks to John Lee Beatty’s grassy, vine-enclosed setting), we can’t see the match that the immensely popular Bill Tilden has just won. But what we do get to see is "Big Bill," a nicely quirky little drama by A.R. Gurney about the legendary and ultra gentlemanly tennis player, who, in the 1920s, is credited with putting tennis in the headlines and into the forefront of American sports. Under Mark Lamos’ gentlemanly direction, "Big Bill" comes up a winner.

Despite his obsession with fair play, winning countless trophies, Tilden resisted going professional until 1931. Tilden, who was born in 1893 and died in 1953, indulged in another obsession: one that got him into big trouble. He liked the ball boys whom he trained and traveled with a little too much. John Michael Higgins, whom you will recognize from the films "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind," plays Tilden with a delightfully condescending haughtiness and just the right restraint of effeminate behavior to appear amusingly theatrical.

Tilden’s talent for the game, his gift for giving amusing lectures while traveling the circuit ("Cultivate a killer instinct in your soul, but be a sportsman to the world"), adhering to strict code of proper court conduct ("In tennis we wear white. You’ll notice that in the Bible the angels of the Lord always appear in white raiment. Why? Because white is pure, white is innocent. That’s why I don’t approve of shorts"), are given ample exposure in this rather blithely intended 90-minute play.

Among the continuing series of scandalous incidents that will turn a generous judge against him is Tilden’s friendship with Charlie Chaplin (not seen). Evidently (and given more detail in a recent Chaplin biography) a frequent guest of Chaplin’s home, where "the little tramp" was commonly known for seducing young girls, Tilden was doing the same with young men. Tilden would serve time in jail. But he was also lucky enough to have the supporting friendship of a widow (Margaret Welsh) who stands by him and keeps him as a boarder in her home. Tilden is apparently also respectful of her young son (a fine performance by Jeremiah Miller) and provides him with tennis lessons.

The winner of seven U.S. championships but a loser when it came to his personal life, Tilden had the misfortune to keep his nature so secret that he never seriously bonded with anyone. It is the sadness in Tilden’s heart that Gurney captures so well (to the judge: "I am not a criminal! I am a tennis player. What’s more – I feel awkward saying this – but I consider myself an artist, an artist of the game").

Tilden’s love for the game is noted in the way that he flips about his most constant companion, a custom-made wooden racket. His anyone-for-tennis type of naivete is quite disarming, even when he is apt to good-naturedly pat the rear ends of the ball boys, conduct perceived as unbecoming to the stuffy club members.

Seven excellent actors share center court with Higgins. Among them, David Cromwell is excellent as both an awed umpire and as a less easy to impress judge. Welsh also has a brief and telling scene in which she appears beguilingly as the famed opera diva Mary Garden and quickly figures out what side of the net Tilden is on. Steven Rowe impresses as Tilden’s agent and various judgmental friends. Tilden’s tragedy is that he died alone and without the support of the tennis association. Tilden’s belated triumph is in our renewed appreciation of what he did for the sport. "The Great Gatsby of tennis" has been well served (no pun intended) by Gurney. HHH

– Simon Saltzman

Big Bill, Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200. Through May 16.

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