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Theatre in Review: The Last Match (Roundabout Theatre/Laura Pels Theatre)

Alex Mickiewicz, Natalia Payne. Photo: Joan Marcus

Tennis can be an unbearably suspenseful sport -- if a match is closely fought, its fate can hang on each volley -- so playwright Anna Ziegler is onto something in The Last Match, which is set in the minds and memories of two leading pros locked in a potentially fateful face-off at the US Open. Tim, the number-one ranked player, is a battle-scarred veteran who, according to rumor, may be on the verge of retirement. Sergei, his younger, hungrier opponent, is aflame with the desire to take Tim down, a victory that would put his career on a brand new level. In a way, his entire life has led him to this moment. Add in a pair of vitally interested female partners, commenting from the sidelines, and you should have an evening that crackles, right?

Not entirely. Ziegler makes clear what is at stake for Tim and Sergei -- and she pits them against each other in a match that whipsaws in different directions, depending on which player, lost in thoughts of the past, loses focus. But, in the end, The Last Match consists of a series of dramatic lobs; an elegant piece of construction, it never reaches the explosive climax that, for much of the evening, it seems to be heading toward. Ziegler has a compassionate nature -- arguably too compassionate for a playwright -- and seems determined to spare them both the agony of defeat. It's a decision that robs this sometimes-beguiling character study of any punch. In sports, as in life and drama, somebody must lose.

Tim and Sergei have sacrificed everything to get the US Open and, in its best passages, The Last Match details the very different paths each man has taken. A blond-haired golden boy with an easy smile and professionally modest manner -- the role would have been a natural for the young Robert Redford -- Tim is wearily aware that he has nowhere to go but down. As Sergei notes, acidly if amusingly, at 34, Tim is a virtual dinosaur, and, in one especially pointed sequence, we see that his played-out body is bandaged together. "I've always thought if a player doesn't wake up in some kinda pain, they're doing something wrong," he says. "And that's just the deal. Eleven-month season. No one to sub-in for you. It's brutal. You can't add to that worrying about your body ten years down the line. If you did, no one would play at all." Such nonchalance is a dodge: He has sustained a series of high-profile losses and knows the clock is running out, yet he can't imagine life off the court.

Providing a kind of countermelody to the theme of Tim's sputtering career is his wife, Mallory, a former tennis pro turned coach, whose attempts at getting pregnant repeatedly end badly. In the worst case, she discovers, eight months out, that the baby has died -- but the doctor convinces her to go through labor, anyway, insisting that it is the safest way of disposing of the dead fetus. When Tim suggests that maybe it is time for her to stop putting herself through such suffering, she snaps back, "Do you want me to be a failure at everything I set out to do?"

At least, Tim comes from a loving family. Sergei, a tennis prodigy, was separated from his parents at an early age and sent to a school where his talents could be developed. This decision left a hole deep inside him. The ultimate fate of his parents -- not to be revealed here -- adds to his burden of responsibility. His girlfriend, Galina, a model and sometime actress, is an expert at handing out tough love. Galina is a kind of enlightened gold digger, combining mercenary and affectionate impulses to keep a hold over Sergei. Her attitude is spiked with a solid shot of fatalism. "Sergei, I am Russian," she says. "I cannot forget the impossibility of happiness. But you. You are lucky...you can escape who you are." And, she implies, he can take her with him.

And so it goes, with the addition of each new character insight giving us a rooting interest in the outcome of the game, leading to a climax that, surprisingly, fizzles. If the director, Gaye Taylor Upchurch, can't solve the play's ultimate sense of irresolution, she has at least found four actors who are a pleasure to be with. Wilson Bethel is an ace at suggesting a world of prickly emotions behind Tim's practiced sports-star smile; when, like an outbreak of summer lightning, he loses his temper, calling Sergei to his face the best player in the world, we see that his casual manner is as practiced as his serve. He partners deftly with Zoƫ Winters, once "the gal who gave out hugs after every match" and now resigned to living in Tim's shadow. A flashback to the day Tim first asked her out on a date is an amusing study in the strategy of flirting; watching such scenes, it's easy to hope that Tim will have one last big victory before hanging up his racquet.

Alex Mickiewicz's Sergei is twitchy with energy; whether psyching himself up with some improvised moves or merely hopping with rage against an unjust (to him) referee's call, he appears to be in perpetual motion, furiously chasing a dream he is no longer certain will bring him contentment. His amusing version of English combines precise sentiments with a slightly tortured syntax. (Speaking of his feelings for Galina, he says, "It is, as they say, intoxicating, as though you have taken very strong drug like crack or cocaine, which I have only tried on handful of occasions, so I cannot really comment.") He has a formidable partner in Natalia Payne's Galina, who has invented herself out of whole cloth and has no use for anyone who isn't on board with her program. (In one hilarious passage, she describes an argument with her mother, who disdains her choice of lipstick: "So I say, 'My lips are my lips, to do with as I please,' and she say, 'I made those lips,' and I say, 'I am not inside of you and have not been inside of you for many years during which time I have come to see how everything about you is despicable'.")

Upchurch's production is unusually inventive, beginning with Tim Mackabee's set, which places the actors against a sky cyc over which hangs a forced-perspective array of stadium lights. (Scoreboards, on the right and left walls of the theatre, complete the effect.) The lighting designer, Bradley King, creates a number of vivid color changes with the stadium lights; he also treats the sky cyc with a series of time-of-day looks, from a blue afternoon wash to a pink-and-orange tinged sunset. Bray Poor's sound design brings the match to life with the effects of balls hitting racquets, applause from the bleachers, and comments from the referees. Montana Blanco's costumes help to flesh out the characters, especially the contrast between Mallory, who favors sweatpants and bulky sweaters, with Galina, in her tight skirts and high heels.

Everything about The Last Match is as slick and professional as one could wish, but for the fact that Ziegler has found no satisfying way to end it, a failure that causes one to retroactively feel that it is little more than a five-finger exercise by a talented writer, stretching her muscles for a better play down the line. Interestingly, the climactic tennis match in the current film Battle of the Sexes, about the legendary showdown between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, is more suspenseful and involving -- and we know, going in, how it played out. The Last Match ends up scoring a deuce. -- David Barbour

(25 October 2017)

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