By Stanford Friedman
Tension, anyone? Anna Ziegler’s new play, The Last Match, is a story about families in the guise of a tennis match. Or, perhaps it is a tennis match overwhelmed by the need for family. Regardless, we are told early on that, “in those kinds of matches, there is tension all the way through.” If this production, though well acted and visually compelling, does not fully live up to that promise, it does at least serve up a volley of poignant moments amid funny acts of courtship.
Ziegler’s characters are a pair of mixed doubles. Tim (Wilson Bethel) is a tennis champion who now, at age 34, faces his final game, a semifinal match at the US Open. His opponent is the rising star, Sergei (Alex Mickiewicz), who is younger and as Russian as Tim is Midwestern. Rooting them on are Tim’s wife, Mallory (Zoë Winters), whose own tennis career failed to take off, and Sergei’s girlfriend Galina (Natalia Payne), a wisecracking femme fatale with a good heart and devastating glare. As the two men play out their sets amid a series of flashbacks chronicling their sport and romantic histories, the paradoxes add up. Mallory has tried and failed repeatedly to have a baby, her body failing her despite her best efforts. Galina, quite effectively, has used her body to get what she wants. The orphaned Sergei is a boy without parents. Tim is a would-be parent without boys.
Under the direction of Gaye Taylor Upchurch, Bethel and Winters both exude a natural warmth, making it easy to believe their love and that they will surely overcome any hardships. Mickiewicz and Payne also have a definite chemistry which, for better and worse, is peppered with stoically Soviet laugh lines. “I am Russian. I cannot forget the impossibility of happiness,” says Galina, her deadpan delivery drawing guffaws. We are left wanting a few more earnest moments between the two. The play’s more serious challenge, though, is the presentational style in which it is written. The majority of the dialog is spoken straight out to the audience. Though Bethel and Mickiewicz bound around the stage, they are telling us a tennis match in narration, and the tensions deflate. Similarly, the flashback scenes of the couples dealing with their various issues are undercut when they turn from each other and speak to us. To her credit, at least, Ziegler avoids any overt “life is like a game of tennis” dialog. Well, that is until the very end when she cannot help but tell us that we live life at deuce, “One is always tied up, tied together, with the other person.”
Tim Mackabee’s set design is fantastic to the point that it overwhelms the play. It’s a mini Arthur Ashe Stadium with full scoreboards on either side of the stage, banks of floodlights overhead, a backdrop with beautiful skyscapes and a vast open playing space where Tim and Sergei have at each other. Large US Open logos penetrate the psyche, commenting on what we are watching – us, open. We watch as though on a split-screen, the actors side by side, yet opposite each other. Bray Poor’s dead-on sound design includes squeaking sneakers, bouncing balls and the roar of the crowd. But, the tennis is only half the play. Just throwing a table and chairs onto the court for the flashbacks is a true visual bummer and cheapens the importance of those scenes. The design team gets away with playing tennis without a net, but the games of the heart these people play deserve a richer backdrop.
The Last Match – By Anna Ziegler; directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch.
WITH: Wilson Bethel (Tim), Alex Mickiewicz (Sergei), Natalia Payne (Galina) and Zoë Winters (Mallory).
Tim Mackabee, Set Designer; Montana Blanco, Costume Designer; Bradley King, Lighting Designer; Bray Poor, Sound Designer; Samantha Watson, Production Stage Manager. Roundabout Theatre Company, The Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 W 46th Street. 212.719.1300, https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Shows-Events/The-Last-Match.aspx. Through December 24. Running time: 90 minutes.