Anna Ziegler’s play The Last Match gives us a front row seat to the psychological warfare between two tennis stars in the semifinals of the US Open. But fighting with each other on the court is only one layer of the conflict as they mine their own fears of failure, temptations with success, and deep seated need to win. Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s athletic and colorful production keeps everything bouncing along. But the play itself feels padded even at only 95 minutes. Still strong performances mostly carry the audience through.
Ziegler establishes broad stroke characteristics in her players which she shades in more carefully as the play wends on. Tim Porter (Wilson Bethel) is the 34-year-old, six-time US Open champion and a cheery, golden boy from the Midwest. Sergei Sergeyev (Alex Mickiewicz) is the twenty-something orphaned, angry, melancholy Russian upstart gunning for Porter. From the outside these men may appear like opposites, but as Zeigler reveals their inner thoughts during the match, we see how they both are trying to escape who they are. While they muse on memories of their pasts, the defining romances of their lives, and their struggles beyond tennis, we get a broader perspective on two men driven by relentless desire.
Through the ups and down of this semifinal, Ziegler explores the abject loneliness of the tennis player, fighting himself and his inner demons alongside his opponent. This leads to some well-crafted character work from both playwright and performers. But there is a touch of tedium from the regular volleys back and forth.
To expand the story a bit more, Ziegler focuses on the relationships between the athletes and the women in their lives. Tim’s wife Mallory (the effervescent Zoë Winters) is a former tennis player and now coach. They have been trying to start a family and at his age Tim’s legacy begins to weigh on him. Sergey has been a loner for much of his life but he gets involved with fellow Russian, Galina (a formidable Natalia Payne), and she has the temper and drive to meet his own. These relationships get us off the courts for a bit but even giving the characters these private moments they tend to re-emphasize what we already know or what we gain gets repeated thematically in the character monologues.
There is no break from tennis in their personal lives and the single set (by Tim Mackabee) which suggests an outdoor stadium serves as the primary space for all interactions. Silver discs of stadium lights dominate the top of the stage. Massive working scoreboards are placed on the sides of the audience alongside the boxes for Mallory and Galina to watch the game. The stage is covered in green and blue turf while a massive sky fills the horizon. As they play the match, the lighting design from Bradley King reflects the setting sun, the rising night, and the passage of time. Even though the actors do not hold racquets or balls, they mime their motions and Bray Poor’s sound fills in the rest with the ping of balls and thump of racquets in the sound design. The illusion is so complete that you forget they are not actually playing at times.
Bethel and Mickiewicz lunge for shots, serve imaginary balls high above their heads, and skid across the stage as tennis players would. But on top of performing the physical feats of their characters they must also project the men they are now and the boys they once were as Ziegler takes each character through memories of their past. Mickiewicz deftly portrays a mix of Sergey’s burgeoning potential, his cusp of greatness, and the tsunami of emotions that he cannot suppress. His body seems like it can hardly contain the extremes he feels. Bethel has the challenge of holding in so many of his character’s emotions. He offers a strongly stoic exterior for Porter while slowly revealing and admitting to his private frustrations as he’s confronted with a body that no longer does what it once did. Both actors realize the complexity demanded of them. They each carefully hold onto contradictory parts of their characters all at once—confidence and fear, aggression and empathy, desire and resignation. The production’s success is largely due to these actors also playing at the top of their game.