Theater archives

Sports and Past Times


The past was beautiful; the past was terrible. The past was a glorious time of opportunity; the past was a bigoted hell with every door closed. The past was a time of loving, sharing, and communal respect for tradition; the past was a vicious time of greed, spite, and climbers out for themselves. Am I talking about the evolution of African-American neighborhoods, or about the history of women’s tennis? Both, as it happens. August Wilson’s Radio Golf and Terrence McNally’s Deuce, which opened on Broadway in the same week, are hardly the same play. In structure, style, story, tone, and intent, they couldn’t be further from each other. Yet they both sing the same song: Things were better then; things were worse then. To be stuck in the past is to be doomed, demented, dead; to forget the past, and trample it into the ground as you march toward the future, is to be dead a different way. To lose the past is to lose something irreplaceable, but there is no way, ultimately, not to let it go.

Radio Golf, the 10th and final play in Wilson’s cycle about 20th-century black American life, is set in the late 1990s, and is full of the electronic busy-busy of contemporary existence: cell phones and media appearances, talk radio and mixed-use urban high-rises. In earlier Wilson plays, the men who did well were the minister, the undertaker, the taxicab dispatcher; in this newly upgraded black world, the key figures are a realtor and a banker. One of the two men will go forward, cutting shady corporate deals that simultaneously keep down the black community and promote the advancement of enterprising black individuals; the other will retreat, preserving an important piece of the community’s heritage at a tragic cost to himself. Wilson’s sympathies are clearly with the latter, but as a writer he knew better than to let sympathy cast the deciding vote, and the effect of the play is to leave an unanswered question hanging in the air long after the final curtain.

The urban-development project that brings the two men from partnership into open warfare looms for Wilson’s beloved Hill District, a region now as familiar to American playgoers as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County is to the literary set. Dealing as it does with real estate, Radio Golf is amply stocked with references to places from the earlier plays, often evoking the characters whom we remember inhabiting them. The play’s key point of contention is the apparently deserted house at 1839 Wylie, the scene of the cycle’s opening play, Gem of the Ocean, and alluded to in many of the others, including Seven Guitars and King Hedley II. A Federalist-era house full of beautiful architectural features, lovingly described by the realtor, Harmond (Harry Lennix), it turns out to have not only spiritual but also genealogical significance for the play’s characters, some of whom find themselves with bonds stronger than those of “community” in the abstract sense of the word. The inescapable sense of memory as a kind of invisible water of life that holds us all together, and that progress inevitably dries up, gives this bustling, sardonic, plot-driven play its melancholy undertow.

Harmond’s newly discovered passion for the old house receives visible opposition onstage from a huge rendering of the characterless shopping-and-residential tower that he and his banker partner Roosevelt (James A. Williams) have been planning to build on its site-—another of those characterless glass-and-concrete things produced by our modern empire builders. Roosevelt himself embodies the opposition physically: A big, affable man who looks the picture of success, he is preoccupied with his golf game, and particularly with the idea of playing golf with wealthy and influential whites. (The title comes from his actually doing a radio show, in the latter part of the play, on which he gives golf tips.) But Roosevelt, too, has a tragic undertow: His very name—the “white” name of a U.S. president whose humanitarian policies were the antithesis of Roosevelt’s own—signals the unease with which he vacillates between the black and white communities. He fixates on golf precisely because it’s one of the sports from which blacks were so long excluded.

Plotted tautly, more like an Ibsen play in its tightening mesh of social and psychological circumstances than Wilson’s usual slow outpouring of competing narratives, Radio Golf often seems, like its more get-ahead characters, to be leaving something essential behind. The rich experience embedded in the writing shows occasional faded patches, as if it too could use a shot of urban renewal, and Kenny Leon’s production, smooth and proficient, doesn’t always convey the richness of what is there. This is particularly hard on Tonya Pinkins, struggling to realize in three dimensions the sketchiest role, that of Harmond’s ambitious wife. The men have an easier time of it, with Anthony Chisholm and John Earl Jelks, as the obstinate householder and local handyman who are the gadflies to Harmond’s conscience, pretty much carving the show up between them and taking it home in triumph. Williams’s suave expansiveness finds infinite shadings in a role that could have been played for glib villainy, and Lennix, his lips compressed in a bitter half-smile, seems to dig ever deeper into Harmond’s inner pain.

Inevitably, Tiger Woods’s name gets tossed about in Radio Golf. Deuce, too, drops the names of the African-American athletes who blazed a trail for the integration of that other once whites-only sport, tennis: Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, the Williams sisters. Terrence McNally’s script, like Wilson’s, is wisely evenhanded in acknowledging the goods and bads of past versus present. But the script’s wisdom, like the similarity, regrettably ends there. Nobody is better than McNally at spicing up a laggard scene with a quick volley of verbal badinage, but
Deuce gives the overall effect of a laconic, faintly perfunctory chat about what tennis was vis-à-vis what it’s become, by two retired champions, themselves once trailblazers in giving women equal stature in a game where they, like blacks, were once distinctly second-class citizens.

The play’s thinness is heightened by the casting that made its production on a Broadway scale possible: Two distinctly unretired champions of acting, Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes, play the two retirees. Apart from speakable lines varied by an occasional laugh, McNally hasn’t given them much to work with: a little backstory, a bit of update, one or two minuscule revelations. More boisterous chat by two sportscasters occasionally interrupts the stars’ remarks (they’re ostensibly guests of honor in the stadium at a women’s singles match). Occasionally there are interventions by an autograph hound with a fanatical interest in women’s tennis—his autograph book, inherited from his father, gives McNally easy cues to riffle through the sport’s history. The character also serves intermittently as a narrator, though there’s no particular event to narrate. It’s best to think of
Deuce as a sort of tennis players’ telephone book, read by two beloved artists whom you’d gladly pay to hear reading almost anything. Advantage, the ladies.