By Anna Ziegler; Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch
Produced by Roundabout Theatre Company
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 12.24.17
Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street
by Shani R. Friedman on 10.31.17
Wilson Bethel and Alex Mickiewicz in The Last Match. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: In this sharp, funny look at what it takes to win, and what happens if you do, tennis is like life: sometimes you come up aces and sometimes you get smacked with a ball.
A longtime tennis fan who has watched my share of never-ending matches, I have occasionally wondered what makes tennis so gripping, since it can be as slow as a baseball game, and as long. But there's also the extraordinary skill and athleticism, the celebrity factor of seeing legends, and, if you’re lucky, being in a stadium with a screaming crowd to witness the pulse-pounding moments unfold. The real world of tennis is all over Anna Ziegler’s new dramedy. Ziegler, who played tennis as a kid, was inspired by former top seed Andy Roddick’s on-court retirement speech at the US Open five years ago. She even brought in former pro and commentator Mary Carillo to advise on the choreography. In choosing tennis as her subject, a sport that is as much a test of mental endurance as it is a physical one, Ziegler explores what drives and determines our internal struggles—when we go all in, and when we choose to stay (or go).
Literal golden boy Tim Porter (Wilson Bethel) is a thirty-something blonde American with a face that could sell anything. King of the US Open, Porter is rumored to be retiring while his opponent, the much younger Russian Sergei Sergeyev (Alex Mickiewicz), is the hungry underdog in his first Grand Slam semifinal. Tim, the crowd favorite, seems unflappable, but underneath is the ever-present terror of “the pressure and the failure and the death and the ambition and the coming up short.” He’s also a bit arrogant, if deservedly so, while Sergei’s envy, fury, and desire for a win are palpable.
The two men battle through games and sets as the play opens up, the tennis subtly pausing as the action shifts to the men's memories of their lives before the sport became everything: Tim recalls getting picked up by his dad after every practice and those moments of perfect happiness, while Sergei thinks back to beating his dad in a race as a kid, where he was helpless to stop his competitive zeal and the heartbreak he knew it caused his father.
But most of these memories involve their off-court romantic partners. Tim's wife Mallory (Zoë Winters) used to be on the women’s circuit, but retired and is now a coach. She’s supportive and good-natured, teasing him that even after he's been forgotten, she’ll still love him. They have an affectionate, sweet rapport as we catch glimpses of a friendship that blossomed into romance and marriage, and Winters and Bethel make it easy to believe them as a couple. Meanwhile Sergei is newly engaged to Galina (Natalia Payne), an intense Russian actress who hilariously inspires not a little fear in Sergei. Galina is very Russian in her no-nonsense attitude and has had to scrap her way to where she is, on her own. Their relationship is like a riotous boxing match, but one that also has moments of love, tenderness, and intimacy.
Ziegler and director Gaye Taylor Upchurch do a fantastic job of creating a riveting, well-paced match (that goes to five sets—if only an actual match could be so efficient!) without the benefit of an actual tennis court. The actors pantomime serves and returns as they gracefully move about the stage. It feels real thanks to terrific design, including Bradley King’s lighting (the match stretches into the night, when overhead lights become essential), Bray Poor’s spot-on sound effects that ring out every time a ball is hit, and Tim Mackabee’s set, which includes US Open signage and an active scoreboard.
Ziegler, whose love for the game is evident, has an excellent ear for crackling dialogue, and I applaud her for making the rarely discussed subject of miscarriage a central part of this story. Winters deftly navigates the apprehension and excitement about motherhood, making Mallory's wrestling with the loss of, and worry about, her pregnancies keenly felt. However, the relationship between Mallory and Tim is the least developed of the three pairs.
Bethel is winning as the guy who seems to have it all, but who is in fact as tormented as Sergei, maybe more so, because he’s been anointed with the hero mantle. Bethel makes Tim likeable even when he acts like a privileged, obnoxious, white millionaire athlete. For me though, it’s Payne and Mickiewicz who make the show—the two of them are so much fun to watch and their pas de deux is fascinating. Payne allows a few cracks in Galina’s tough armor, and the pride she takes in Sergei is clear, even when she’s yelling at him. Mickiewicz does justice to a rich, complex role: he easily earns the laughs and the empathy for Sergei’s wounds.
For both tennis and non tennis fans, The Last Match scores.
(The Last Match plays at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, through December 24, 2017. The running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7:30; Wednesdays at 2 and 7:30; Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2 and 7:30; and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $79 and are available at roundabouttheatre.org or by calling 212.719.1300.)
The Last Match is by Anna Ziegler. Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. Set Design by Tim Mackabee. Lighting Design by Bradley King. Sound Design by Bray Poor. Costume Design by Montana Blanco. Dialect Coach is Ben Furey. Stage Manager is Samantha Watson
The cast is Wilson Bethel, Alex Mickiewicz, Natalia Payne, and Zoë Winters.