Off Broadway Reviews
There is an element of discovery in Anna Ziegler's plays that could fool us into believing the characters onstage have suddenly become aware of their existence and have taken the reins of their lives, distancing themselves from what the actors playing them memorized from the page. These are moments when the characters realize things about their lives that lead them to speak truths that, despite their power, never turn into platitudes. If nothing else, this inexplicable tenderness reaffirms Ziegler's status as one of the most vibrant playwrights in America. Her latest The Last Match which opened at the Laura Pels Theater on October 25, is no exception.
This time around, Ziegler sets her characters' study in the world of tennis, as we meet Tim Porter (Wilson Bethel) and Sergei Sergeyev (Alex Mickiewicz), two of the world's best players facing off at the U.S. Open semifinals. Tim is an All-American-hero type who is rumored to be nearing retirement at age 34, Sergei is a Russian immigrant, ten years Tim's junior, who can't believe he's finally playing against his childhood idol. Rather than setting the play just in the present, the scenes take place in the figurative instants in between serves. Each time the invisible ball hits one of the player's rackets (we can only hear the distinct whoosh of the ball courtesy of Bray Poor's sound design) we are invited into their innermost thoughts and memories.
We learn how for the past few years, Golden Boy Tim has been unsuccessfully trying to have a baby with his wife Mallory (Zoë Winters), herself a former tennis player who quit the game when her body forced her to. Mallory seems worried that a family won't be enough to keep Tim happy, which is quite the opposite of Galina's (Natalia Payne) problem, Sergei's model-turned-actress girlfriend who praised him for not being devoted exclusively to her, like previous men were. Meanwhile Sergei, who was orphaned at a young age and grew up without a clear sense of purpose fears that he will never find what Tim has. It would be easy to suggest that The Last Match is essentially about the grass being greener across the net, and yet what Ziegler builds is less of a contrast study and more of a mirror.
Where Tim and Sergei are most connected is in their love for the game and the way in which both find an escape and a mission match after match. By exploring the thoughts running across their minds with each game, Ziegler is able to manipulate time with the precision of a clockmaker. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Roundabout Theatre, which is producing this play Off-Broadway, also has another essay on the impact of time at one of their Broadway houses. In Time and the Conways, a rarely produced play from the 1920s by John Boynton Priestley, we see how new scientific ideas of the era challenged people's notions of how we move across time. Ziegler's play, while less obsessed with scientific data, is more efficient at showcasing juxtapositions that reveal things unknown to the characters without allowing us to condescend them. Steering far from "life's a game" clichés, The Last Match poses questions on the nature of our purpose, and whether we can alter our destiny. It's only fitting that stars, both figurative and literal, are at the center of this match.
The Last Match