How do you portray a tennis match on stage? Playwright Anna Ziegler and director Gaye Taylor Upchurch have solved the problem brilliantly in “The Last Match,” a Roundabout Theatre Company production. They rely on the aura of make-believe one can bring to the theater, plus the expertise of a top-notch cast of four.
The play focuses on combining the rigors of the sport with both the excitement and the toll taken for the players depicted and the women in their lives. What happens when time takes its toll and the satisfaction and the glory ends? How does one balance careers with relationships?
The story is built around the lives of opponents, the American Tim, energetically played by Wilson Bethel, and Sergei, a Russian star portrayed by Alex Mickiewicz. Dressed in tennis garb, they rush about the stage hitting imaginary balls (with tapping sound effects), and in between their combat on the stage, which passes for a court, they talk about their lives. We also see them in encounters with their wives before and after their marriages.
The only touch of tennis realism is provided by a giant tennis scoreboard on each side of the theater, with changes in tallies recording the state of the match as it progresses.
Tim is driven by success and trying to maintain his status. He is desperate to win, especially since a new baby son is in the stands. That is absurdly symbolic, as it’ll take his growing up to know what tennis is all about.
Sergei has his own emotions at play. His parents were killed in an air crash early in his life and he is very sad that they will never learn of his great success as a player. Both men are driven, and both men are haunted by the fear of what will happen after they can no longer compete.
In addition to the excellent performances by Bethel and Mickiewicz, there are superb portrayals of their respective wives--Zoe Winters as Mallory and Natalia Payne as Galina. Mallory was also a tennis player, but her talent was relegated to the background as a result of a marriage and her wanting to become a mother. She is full of resentment, especially since she has gone through the horror of a miscarriage and has had trouble conceiving again. She accuses Tim of lack of understanding.
We see in flashback the clumsy but funny courtship between Sergei and Galina. But there is a spark between them, and in a humorous scene Sergei finds a unique way of proposing. Payne is excellent with her Russian accent and as a woman who prides herself on her svelte shape, which, of course, Sergei appreciates. She also has plenty of sharp dialogue, often droll, and Payne makes the most of the character and lines.
As the match progresses, each woman is on the theater sidelines, whether watching raptly or shouting words of advice and encouragement. It is quite amazing how much excitement is achieved, and how much insight is communicated about all four individuals as well as about the sport. But you don’t have to know tennis to be swept up in the play.
I do find that it could be trimmed some, as there tends to be repetition of some aspects. Although “The Last Match” is only 90 minutes without an intermission there could be a bit of tightening. However, even as is, this is excellent, involving theater. At the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street. Reviewed October 27, 2017.