REVIEW: A Journey into the athlete’s psyche in “The Last Match”
First, a confession: I know next to nothing about tennis. The game, its rules, history, players, and cultural significance form a gaping hole in my knowledge of the world. And yet, there I found myself in the final, goose-bump inducing moments of Roundabout Theatre Company’s “The Last Match”—a new play by Anna Ziegler—completely transfixed and exhilarated, reminded of what I love about the visceral immediacy of live theatre as the lights faded on the final, furious bout of a tennis match.
Tim (Wilson Bethel) and Sergei (Alex Mickiwiecz) are tennis champions in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. Tim, American, a veteran of the game at age 34 and “the greatest in the world”; Alex, Russian, a rising star fighting for his first big title. The 95 minutes of this play follow their last match on the court, providing a natural order as these players move through each game and set, the inevitable drama of who is winning or losing at any given moment heightening the tension. The match is literal, but also symbolic. Monologues and scenes interpolate the action of the game, revealing the internal dialogues of these men and the background of all that they carry with them onto the court: relationships with their parents and partners, their ambitions and fears—the whoosh of the racket, pop of the ball, and roar of the crowd as soundtrack.
Tim is the All-American boy from Iowa with the picture-perfect life; underneath, of course, he’s terrified of aging and losing both his game and his place in history. Tennis, he realizes, is his life; and he’s paid a great, personal cost for his success. Mallory (Zoë Winters), his wife, retired from her career in tennis, and is struggling to carry a pregnancy to term. Sergei, meanwhile, is haunted by the ghosts of his dead parents and, a decade younger, taunted by the prospect of facing his hero, Tim. He and his girlfriend, Galina (Natalya Payne), are wrapped in a turbulent courtship as they wax Russian misanthropy and their belief in the impossibility of happiness.
All this history courses through the minds of these men as the game unfolds—ripe territory for dramatization—and Ms. Ziegler smartly explores the human reality of how coiled in any great performative moment is everything that has led up to it, the totality of one’s existence. Especially, for example, at the top level of any professional sporting match. Behind each ace and backhand of these men is the endless practice, the sleepless nights, the injuries, the sacrifices, the pain, the loss, the love—the agony and ecstasy of any great feat requiring skill and physical and emotional training.
Mr. Bethel, as Tim, gives a standout performance, in an excellent ensemble, with an easy charisma that subtly covers the crises burning beneath his golden boy patina. And the energetic direction by Gayle Taylor Upchurch—coupled with a boffo sound design by Bray Poor—effortlessly brings us onto the court of a live tennis match without ever feeling unnatural.
The match is these men’s lives. It’s not just a game. It’s jazz. It’s poetry. It’s dance. It’s sex. Ms. Ziegler captures this spirit while also honing in on the nature of ambivalence, how when something overcomes your life because you love it so much, it also becomes much easier to hate. These men who have devoted their lives to the game of tennis aren’t always so convinced that they even like it. That’s a bold insight from the playwright, deeply relatable, and difficult to observe for fear of where introspection might lead.
The fact that I know nothing about tennis as I sat down in the Laura Pels Theatre didn’t matter because the simplicity of this play, and the pace with which it moves, masks a much more profound discourse about ambition, pressure, success, failure, and purpose—subjects we can all relate to. The flashback technique grows a tad weary—even in a brisk 95 minute play—too often consisting of contrived expository conversations. But, after all, we are in the minds of these men as they wend toward the match point, and memory is not a camera but a collage, a fitting metaphor for this kaleidoscopic exploration of the athlete’s psyche.
Bottom Line: “The Last Match”, a new play set during a tennis match at the U.S. Open, is an exhilarating and smart exploration of the athlete’s psyche.
“The Last Match”
Roundabout Theatre Company
Laura Pels Theatre
at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 West 46th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 95 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: October 24, 2017
Final Performance: December 24, 2017