'The Last Match': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Wilson Bethel (left) and Alex Mickiewicz in 'The Last Match'
A missed serve.

An American and a Russian tennis player square off in this sports-themed drama by Anna Ziegler, author of 'A Delicate Ship' and 'Photograph 51.'

Here's a question: When you're watching a sporting event on television, are you more focused on the game or the human interest-style profiles of the athletes that invariably accompany it? If the answer is the latter, you may particularly appreciate The Last Match, now receiving its New York premiere courtesy of Roundabout Theatre Company.

This new drama by Anna Ziegler (A Delicate Ship, Photograph 51) revolves around a U.S. Open semifinal match between two world-class tennis players. Tim (Wilson Bethel), the American reigning champion, has long been dominant in the game but, now 34 and beset by debilitating back problems, he's inevitably slowing down. His challenger, Russian player Sergei (Alex Mickiewicz), is nearly a decade younger and hungry to win. But although he refers to Tim an "old man," Sergei acknowledges that he's battling a legend.

During their match both players apparently have a lot of time to think. The action shifts back and forth in time as they remember events that occurred over the last 10 years, related in the form of both monologues and dramatized scenes. We see Tim introducing himself and asking out his future wife Mallory (Zoe Winters), a tennis player who subsequently retires and takes up coaching. Numerous scenes illustrate Sergei's tempestuous relationship with his fiery but devoted girlfriend Galina (Natalia Payne), whose ambition for his success almost exceeds his own.  

Unfortunately, these flashbacks never achieve sufficient dramatic momentum to sustain interest. Such situations as Mallory suffering a series of miscarriages and Sergei's despair over having lost his parents in a car crash when he was a teenager aren't particularly original. The play works best in its more lighthearted moments, such as the comical scene set in a diner where Sergei asks the determinedly refined Galina to marry him, but only on the condition that she loosen up and finally eat a french fry.

More compelling are the moments in which the two players analyze the game from their individual perspectives. Having long since grown accustomed to being top dog, Tim must contemplate the possibility of failure. And Sergei, whose devotion to Galina doesn't prevent him from falling into bed with a fan who throws herself at him, begins to wonder if he truly has what it takes to be the world's best tennis player.

Tennis fans will certainly appreciate the attention to detail in this production staged by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. The ever-changing game scores are prominently displayed throughout, while the actors, sans rackets, vigorously mime the action accompanied by sound effects of balls being thwacked and lusty cheers from the crowd. On the other hand, if you're not terribly familiar with — or fond of — the sport, you may often find your mind wandering.

The four performers are all fine, with the two men effectively fulfilling their roles' physical as well as emotional demands. If Mickiewicz and Payne have an edge, it's only because their hot-headed Russian characters are far more amusing. Thanks to the performers' efforts, The Last Match has its entertaining moments. But much like an athletic event that's gone on for too long, you'll be relieved when it's finally over.    

Venue: Laura Pels Theatre, New York
Cast: Wilson Bethel, Alex Mickiewicz, Natalia Payne, Zoe Winters
Playwright: Anna Ziegler
Director: Gaye Taylor Upchurch
Set designer: Tim Mackabee
Costume designer: Montana Blanco
Lighting designer: Bradley King
Sound designer: Bray Poor
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company