Tennis is a young man’s game, we’re told by 34-year-old Tim (Wilson Bethel), an all-American titleholder facing off against his Russian challenger, 20-something Sergei (Alex Mickiewicz), at the semifinals of the U.S. Open. Both players are at the top of their game in the new play “The Last Match,” but this match could be either the end of Tim’s career or a crippling setback for the ambitious Sergei.
Playwright Anna Ziegler, whose play “Photograph 51” had a run in London that starred Nicole Kidman, hits all the big metaphorical themes of competitive sports – tennis as a symbol for the game of life; the elemental battles between social tribes; the generational transfer of power; the crippling losses of getting older. But in this production at the Roundabout Theater Company, she also manages to dramatize a very realistic and quite exciting tennis match between perfectly matched players.
Under Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s streamlined direction, Bethel (“Hart of Dixie”) and Mickiewicz (“Therese Raquin”) speak the body language of the court. Invisible balls are served, chased, returned and missed with grace and power by two toned athletes wielding invisible rackets. The choreography is so precise – and Bray Poor’s sound design is so specific – we can almost see those balls coming at us.
What we can’t see, we hear from the players and the women in their lives who are cheering them on from the sidelines. Zoe Winters (“4000 Miles”) is properly preppy as Mallory, Tim’s wife and the mother of his baby son and all the other children he wants to have. “You wish you were eighteen and that your body didn’t make creaking noises and that people weren’t calling you old on TV,” she teases her supersensitive husband.
Natalia Payne (“Me, Myself & I”) is all Russian boldness and bravado as Galina, Sergei’s outspoken Number One cheerleader. “Thinking is not your strength,” she warns Sergei when he disappears into his own head. “Hitting a ball over a net at great speeds and with impressive precision – that is your strength.”
Like those invisible balls, the dialogue whizzes by at warp speed. “It’s not exactly a whizzing sound,” Tim says. “No, it’s more of a whoosh,” Sergei agrees. They know each other’s weaknesses and so do their women.When they aren’t needling each other or addressing the audience, they’re talking to themselves, berating themselves for that botched serve, that embarrassing double fault. “You don’t understand why you aren’t good enough,” moans Sergei, who lets his underdog position get under his skin. It’s his first U.S. Open semifinal and he’s all nerves in Mickiewicz’s electrifying — and wonderfully funny – performance. “He is legend,” says Sergei, paralyzed by his hero-worship.
Meanwhile, Tim helps his competition by brooding on his advanced age and weakening knees. “That’s when the rumor comes back into my mind,” he says. “My retirement. My retirement. And all of a sudden I can’t breathe. I mean, I can’t even breathe!”
More than any other sport (say its players), tennis is a mind game. You spook your opponent; the game is yours. And the same goes for your cheering squad. “Ubiystvo ublyudka, Seryozha!“ roars Galina — which roughly translates to: “Kill the bastard!” Mallory’s support is more measured, more soothing, more wife-of-American-sports-legend. The Russians, needless to say, are more fun. But Tim and Mallory are quietly, painfully touching.
Before this game is over, the athletes will have given their fans a glimpse of the burning desire and the crushing pain of winning and losing at the game of life we all play.
Off Broadway Review: ‘The Last Match’
Laura Pels Theater; 424 seats; $79 top. Opened Oct. 24, 2017. Reviewed Oct. 21. Running time: ONE HOUR, 30 MIN.
Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. Set, Tim Mackabee; costumes, Montana Blanco; lighting, Bradley King; sound, Bray Poor; dialect coach, Ben Furey, production stage manager, Samantha Watson.
Wilson Bethel, Alex Mickiewicz, Natalia Payne, Zoe Winters.