by Sandi Durell
Whoosh! There goes another imagined tennis ball soaring across the imagined net, with imagined racquets. Yet the intensity of this ace sport is as big as life itself. In fact, to some it is life and breath. To the American, Tim (a sensitive Wilson Bethel), who holds the title in this U.S. Open semi-final, it means everything, especially at his tender age of 34 nearing retirement. What must it feel like as he lunges for balls against his opponent, the 20-something Russian Sergei (Alex Mickiewicz), the intensity dramatic. Sergei is young and formidable and can taste the championship in Anna Ziegler’s (A Delicate Ship) new play at Roundabout Theatre Company.
The match is graceful and powerful with precision as simultaneous body motions (exquisite direction and choreography by Gaye Taylor Upchurch) and specific sounds (by Bray Poor) of balls ignite. What also ignites is Sergei’s volatile reactions and relationship with his girlfriend Galina (a fierce Natalia Payne) as he relates his emotional story leaving home at 11 to pursue his dream of tennis, of losing his parents, his uncertainties about himself, while remaining somewhat in awe of playing against the champion. But it’s always about the game . . . and winning at all costs.
In The Last Match, Tim is married to Mallory (Zoe Winters) whom he met ten years back. She was a professional tennis player, left the game and became a coach. After losing a baby, they now have a 2 year old son, via invitro, whom she displays in his tennis box at the match and remains the reason why he must win.
Like a tennis match, the story portrays lives moving back and forth in time sequences, giving glimpses into the relationships of the two couples. Tim, losing both parents as a teenager, is aghast thinking about retirement . . . “I can’t even breathe!” Mallory, an understanding, gentle wife, has subjugated herself to a tennis legend as we peek into their earlier lives. They’re more stable, softer and moving than the high intensity, explosive Sergei and the pragmatic Galina who pushes him on. They are also the comic relief with Russian accents flowing (Ben Furey, dialect coach) especially in a diner when Sergei insists Galina must eat some French fries, after he’s eaten his melted cheese and bacon sandwich, a ruse before getting down on his knee to propose with diamond ring in hand.
I was reminded of another tennis themed play last year around the same time, “Don’t You F…king Say a Word” by Andy Bragen at 59e59 Theaters. Also high intensity when it came to love and bad behavior!
The men are physically adept and display great emotional fortitude in their suffering and desires. The women, at opposite ends of the personality spectrum, fulfill the characters they portray.
For tennis players who can relate this brings up all kinds of issues – the love of a sport, the physical changes that occur getting older, the taste of competition, the pure fun and camaraderie of the game. But perhaps not as much fun when the stakes are high and you’re in the big time, and the game is life itself.
The Last Match is an interesting premise for a play but you’ll have an edge of enjoyment if it’s a sport in which you participate.
The well designed mini tennis court and score boards are by Tim Mackabee with lighting by Bradley King.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Laura Pels Theater – 111 West 46 Street Running time: one hour, 30 minutees (no intermission) thru December 24.