By: Isa Goldberg
Watching the two super heroes of tennis battling it out at the US Open in Anna Ziegler’s new play, The Last Match, is invigorating, indeed.
It’s provocative enough that Ziegler’s champs are not the legends of our contemporary culture, as they are in the wonderful film, Battle of The Sexes, with Emma Stone and Steve Carrell as Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Still, as directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, the fictional gods of Match, are as iconic, and incredible, as the gods and goddesses of Greek drama. And they are confronted on par, with the efficacy of their unalterable choices, and over reaching aspirations.
Ziegler’s play artfully dances around the theatricality of the game. Challenging the distance between on stage action and spectator, she breaks the fourth wall. At first, Tim (Wilson Bethel) and Sergei (Alex Mickiewicz) sit on the sidelines of the court, but front and center to the audience, in conversation with one another, even though their gaze peers into the audience. Are we with them, these players will ask themselves throughout the high-stakes game of their careers, and their lives.
For that matter, the agon between the ageing champion of the sport, the American, Tim Porter and, the younger aspirational Russian, Sergei Sergeyev, is a classic. For Sergei, this is a contest against the icon of his childhood. And for Tim, it’s the descent from a throne he has held for a long time.
That we get swooped up into their psyches is no mean trick here. Much of the dialogue spews from the thoughts they release while they’re duking it out on the court. Through the mounting tensions, flashbacks emerge. The players find themselves in conversation with their respective girlfriends – eventually their wives.
Indeed, the conflict on the court mirrors their personal and interpersonal conflicts. Driven to confront their motives – their compulsive drive, self-involvement, and narcissism, they face the ultimate price of success – defeat.
What is the passion that drives them? As Sergei puts it, “How do you get to the bottom of wanting?” Similarly, Tim fears “all of the suffering that goes with desire”.
Fortunately, the two actors are well matched. As Tim, Wilson Bethel is a naturally cocky ivy league American icon. And Alex Mickiewicz breathes the cold war mentality, the loneliness and frigidity of Sergei’s childhood, with emotional exactness.
Through their conversations with their wives, their inner conflicts unfold. Zoe Winters as Tim’s wife, Mallory, is a selfless soul mate, patiently awaiting her god’s return, while Natalia Payne, Galina, is a meaningful goad.
On Tim Mackabee’s miniaturized Colosseum, the score cards loom large from the audience’s left and right, with the court thrusting its way into the spectator’s space. Mostly, the stage is an open arena, augmented by Bradley King’s strobes thrusting out of the proscenium arch.
Ultimately, as foretold, “It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing.” Produced by The Roundabout at the Laura Pels Theater.
The Last Match ****
Laura Pels Theater at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 West 46th Street
Photos: Joan Marcus