By Karen Isaacs
It’s the semifinals of the US Open and the it pits the perennial number one tennis player in the world, the American Tim against a talented younger Russian, Sergei who has had difficulty living up to his potential.
The two know each other well since they are both on the tour. They have played each other with Tim usually winning.
But this match seems different. A rumor is circulating that this tournament will be the last for Tim; he will retire after the Open.
As the match begins – and as it goes on, we see interactions both present and past not only between the players but between each of them and the woman in their life. For Tim, it is his wife Mallory, a former tennis player who left the tour due to injury and now does some coaching. Though he may be the “golden boy” of American tennis, their life has not been always golden. But now they have a young son.
For Sergei, he has struggled on the tour but now he is with Galina, a very determined lady. They aren’t married, but Galina strongly believes in Sergei’s talent and the money that it brings.
The play is structured as tennis sets – and this match goes five sets. The set designed by Tim Mackabee is a tennis court – we see the sideline, the playing surface and the bank of stadium lights. As they are playing, for the most part the two stand on each side of the stage, facing the audience. On the sides are the players’ boxes and the scoreboard.
At times as the game continues, we have scenes between Tim who is 34 and Sergei, between Tim and Mallory and Sergei and Galina. Through these, playwright Anna Ziegler helps us fill out the characters and their history. Tim and Mallory recall the first time they met, and parts of their life since. Tim and Sergei “banter” or on-up each other over various tennis accomplishments. Tim has been top while Sergei hasn’t made it into the top 10, despite talent.
It would spoil the play to reveal too much of either man’s history, or of how the sets go. Let’s just say it is a closely fought match.
But this play is about more than just tennis. It is about ambition, courage, national attributes and expectations, and gamesmanship by all four. It is about how you continue on when things aren’t going well; how you overcome loss (and not just of matches), and how you determine when to let go. It is also about how you motivate yourself.
For Sergei and Galena there are the interesting, but somewhat predictable comments about the Russian soul, such as (I paraphrase) “for Russians there is the impossibility of happiness.”
Wilson Bethel plays Tim and Alex Mickiewicz plays Sergei. Bethel has been a longtime tennis player (and actually gave tennis lessons) but Mickiewicz looks just as authentic as they serve, return serve and play out the points in the match. Each is excellent. Tim is Tom Brady like while Sergei is any one of a number of volatile, occasionally misbehaving professional athletes. Zoë Winters plays the earnest Mallory while Natalia Payne is the more conniving and volatile Galina.
Neither playwright Anna Ziegler not director Gaye Taylor Upchurch break any new ground in this work. At 90+ minutes, it is interesting and will leave you something to think about afterwards.
The Last Match is at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th Street, NYC through Dec. 24. Tickets are available at Roundabout Theatre.