A semi-final match of the United States Tennis Open is the unique setting for playwright Anna Ziegler’s drama The Last Match. On one side is the American ace Tim Porter (Wilson Bethel), a seasoned veteran who has been at the top of the game for years. His opponent, Sergei Sergeyev (Alex Mckiewicz), is a younger Russian upstart with a volatile temper and serve to match. On the surface the two opponents talk trash, pound out winners, and try to psyche each other out. But the show is more than just the two antagonists battling for a berth into the finals. We learn about their backstory, their personal relationships, what drives them, their joys and personal demons.
Ziegler has crafted a drama that is absorbing and engaging. She skillfully paints both a picture of the on-court intensity and gamesmanship as well as the behind-the-scene glamour and spotlight of big time sports. By integrating Mallory, wife of Tim, and Galina, the girlfriend of Sergei, into the mix she humanizes the tennis stars and adds depth and complexity to the characters and story. The playwright has a good, working knowledge of tennis vernacular and does a convincing job of incorporating appropriate banter into the production.
The cast is outstanding. Wilson Bethel is athletically built, self-assured, and introspective as Tim Porter, the long running number one player in the world. He can also come across as vulnerable, self-doubting, and flawed. Alex Mickiewicz gives the character of Sergei Sergeyev, a hot-blooded and impulsive player rapidly moving up the world rankings, an authentic sheen. The actor, full of bravado, also convincingly shows his anguish and pain when out of the limelight. Zoe Winters as Mallory has an endearing persona with a winning smile. Playing a former member of the professional tennis circuit, she has a toughness and determination as she searches for her own identity within the glare of her husband’s brilliance. Natalia Payne’s Galina is gruff, self-confident, and loud but, like her impassioned partner, tempers her performance with melancholy and insecurity.
Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch deftly handles the tennis action on stage. The combatants seem at home on the faux court, swinging and serving with authority and finesse. She adroitly weaves in the side stories, primarily, with the players’ significant others. The intimate interactions can be playful, honest, yet also full of tension and heartache. During the continuous interplay between the on-court match and off-court activity Ms. Upchurch slowly and nimbly builds up the drama of, what turns out to be, a tightly, hotly contested tennis clash.
Scenic Designer Tim Mackabee is on-target with the dark, sky blue and green color scheme of a center court at Arthur Ashe Stadium, home of the U.S. Open. The array of flood lights and life-sized score board off to the side of the stage add a touch of authenticity to the set. Bradley King’s Lighting Design impressively changes the backdrop from a late summer sky to a warm twilight glow. Bray Poor’s Sound Designer contributes well-timed, accurate sounding pings of tennis balls booming off tennis rackets.
The Last Match, an engrossing drama being played out at the Laura Pels Theatre Off-Broadway through December 24th.