FASHIONABLE SETS, CIVIL VOLLEY'S:  George W. S. Trow's The Tennis Game

"Daddy picked me up at school in the Buick. 'Up for a spin, Doll?' was the way he put it. Jaunty, always." Morgan Aspair -- the beautiful, spoiled Morgan Aspair, just in from the Coast -- is reminiscing about her movie-mogul father. "The Buick was a Roadmaster convertible, with four portholes on the side. Daddy pointed to the portholes. Daddy said, 'Did you ever notice that when you buy the cheapest Buick, you get only three? Did you notice that when you move up to the next class, you still get only three? And in the next class, still only three? You got to go all the way to the top of the line to get that fourth porthole, Doll.'"

The principle of the fourth porthole is important to The Tennis Game, George W. S. Trow's very civil, very scathing study of 20th century American aristocracy through three generations. The play takes place on a tennis court, the natural habitat of modern-day royalty, whose power is rooted in money, marriage and mental health. Accordingly, each succeeding "set" -- the turn-of-the-century Newport Set, the Fast Set of the '20s and '30s, and today's Boom Set -- plays a set of tennis, then gives up the court to the coming generation. Each of the play's three scenes introduces a different era and is dominated by the monologue of its leading spokesperson. Except for passing remarks, though, and a symbolic slow-motion "game" that serves as transition from scene to scene, there's no interaction between old and young.

Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt represents the Newport Set. Mrs. Vanderbilt understands the importance of her expensive name and repeats it often, remembers the vogue for baby talk, prefers it to the new vogue for sports, seems to be having some trouble with an ungrateful son. Mrs. Vanderbilt cannot keep up with the Fast Set, which includes Brenda Mdvani, nee Brenda Drew, whose mother was manicurist at Newport's Merovingian Hotel. Brenda is married to Prince Mdvani, who was, we're told, the first member of his generation "to take an interest in dogs"; she is also overly fond of "those lovely green drinks" and drives an ostentatious Rolls which may or may not have been spotted speeding from the site of a hit-and-run accident. Finally there is the Boom Set, exemplified by Morgan Aspair, who is dangerously devoted to her legendary father, has had marzipan party favors made in her own image, amuses herself by shoplifting pearl chokers from Van Cleef and Arpel's in Bev Hills, and has the feeling of "a small obstruction, small in that she cannot be sure exactly where it is, small in that she may be imagining it." She probably imagines lots of things, which is why she's undergoing therapy with a sweat-suited smoothie who tries unsuccessfully to psychobabble her into some sort of trust. "Access to my personal space?" she snorts. "You've got to be kidding. You came in on a bus. I never took a bus in my life."

Overseeing the match is Charlotte Sims, who makes sure each generation retires gracefully to the sidelines when its heyday has passed. Charlotte herself transcends "sets"; she is beyond fashion. Having earned her "fourth porthole" (in coal), she has learned to be infinitely flexible, to change with the trends. ("I go with the speed," she says, or "I go with the numbers.") Her function in the play is unclear; it seems to shift from coach to referee to emcee, nurse, shrink, all-purpose Authority. (Her tennis whites prove a suitable all-purpose uniform.) Charlotte seems to know the rules of the game better than anyone else; she may, in fact, be the only one who knows them. At the end, after Morgan has collapsed blithering before a gaggle of est-fried goons, Charlotte warns the audience: "If you dwell on this girl's sickness, on the sad delusions of the group, then you have not attended the game."

The Tennis Game -- which opened the summer season at the Lenox Arts Center, in the Berkshires -- marks the playwriting debut of George W. S. Trow, whose fascination with the rich and the pretentious has already been exhibited in contributions to the New Yorker. (The most memorable include his profile of record-industry giant Ahmet Ertegun, his account of lunch with the rock critic establishment, and his invention of the Bobby Bison Affordables, young upwardly mobile types who can be hired to consume on demand.) Not surprisingly, The Tennis Game players speak in stylish New Yorker prose -- elegant, crisp, wistful, and a little murky. The play's brilliant surface keeps you scrabbling for meanings long afterwards.

Frankly, I'm still puzzling it out -- and I have a funny feeling that the author meant for me to feel I'd missed something important. It is to Trow's credit that his rich, resonant writing requires unusual concentration, but there is an unwholesome amount of deliberate obfuscation as well. If a point is being made about class distinctions in America (disappearing or holding on? good or bad?), it's too deeply buried. Furthermore, the play's heavily ironic tone is distracting as well as tantalizing. Are the title and leitmotif meant to spoof The Gin Game? Is Charlotte Sims a parody of Joan Didion's Charlotte "My husband runs guns is there caviar?" Douglas? Is Morgan Aspair a thinly disguised Margaux Hemingway? Should we be asking these questions? Still, The Tennis Game is as intriguing a play as I've encountered in months. Despite its static quality, Trow's characters have wonderfully original comic voices.

I wish there were more space in which to discuss the Lenox Arts Center's excellent production. The casting of Linda Hunt -- an incredibly tiny and incredibly good actress -- as the imposing Charlotte Sims is one of those inspired, chance-in-a-lifetime matings of player and part; her performance is unforgettable. Karen Ludwig underplays Morgan Aspair to similarly spectacular effect, and Leora Dana, Linda Atkinson, and Jon Huberth are fine. Only Ed Setrakian's excessive (but mercifully brief) blustering disrupts the show. William Schimmel's according score is delightful, but it belongs in another play; here it seems an obvious afterthought -- or an excuse for including The Tennis Game in Lenox's experimental music-theater program. It's a small and painless price to pay for such a remarkable script.

Boston Phoenix, July 1978