The game of tennis has always served the arts brilliantly.
Combining the elegance of chess and the brutality of boxing – or should that be the brutality of chess and the elegance of boxing? – tennis relies on an individualism that appeals to the writer and a balletic motion that captivates visual artists.
The Roundabout Theatre Company production of Anna Ziegler’s new play “The Last Match” – which opens Tuesday, Oct. 24 at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre in Manhattan – does not stint on the visual. Tim Mackabee’s set and Bradley King’s lighting offer viewers the long day’s journey into night that can be a men’s semifinal match at the US Open, along with the tournament’s serene, cheery blue-green palette. The “players’” monologues are punctuated by realistic, athletic movements – the way the men wiggle their butts as they bend their knees and sway from side to side to receive serve; the sharp slice of an ace; the quickening, staccato rhythm of a long rally.
But tennis is also an inner game of psyche outs played by individuals who nonetheless rely on entourages, particularly significant others. And it is this psychological sport that is at the heart of Ziegler’s “Match,” about two incandescent male rivals at different trajectories in their careers.
Tim Porter (Wilson Bethel) is the greatest player of all time – or at least to date – who’s contemplating retirement. (Think an American Roger Federer.) Russia’s Sergei Sergeyev (Alex Mickiewicz) might one day be as good as Tim if he could just learn to channel his emotions. (Think an ascendant Novak Djokovic.) They meet in a US Open semifinal that could be the swan song for one or the breakthrough for the other. Through the course of it, we come to understand their grudging respect of each other, their challenges, dreams, fears, past tragedies and future hopes played out in a taut match that always seems to be at deuce – neither player advancing without retreating or retreating without gaining.
As excellent as Bethel and Mickiewicz are as the coolly confident Tim and the amusingly exasperated Sergei, I was particularly struck by how much of a doubles match the play is. As Tim’s wife, Mallory – a former player struggling to launch a coaching career and bring a baby to term – Zoë Winters conveys the humorous self-assurance that might be needed to balance a tennis god. And Natalia Payne’s Galina, Sergei’s model-actress of a girlfriend, has just the right blend of sass and brass to keep her man in check.
This is a quartet made up of duets – Tim and Mallory’s, Sergei and Galina’s and Tim and Sergei’s.
You realize when you watch this absorbing play just how much women contribute to the lives of successful men, how for all tennis players’ individuality they crave community and how life progresses through small advances and retreats, the back-and-forth of the baseline game.
I liked the openness of the characters. For all their disappointments and heartaches, they’re not manipulative or neurotic. Tim and Mallory love each other as much as Sergei and Galina do.
I also liked the play’s unusual ending – a reminder of a life lived at deuce.