Regional Reviews: San Diego
It's edge-of-the-seat engaging when it sticks to tennis, and the good will built up from that story almost makes the touchier subjects work.
Tim (Patrick J. Adams) has been the dominant male tennis player in the world for quite some time, but since he turned thirty he's been slipping. Not enough to say he's done, mind you, but definitely slipping. In the U.S. Open, a tournament that Tim thinks of as his own, he's confronted with Sergei (Alex Mickiewicz), a skilled Russian player ten years his junior. Sergei is a bit intimidated by having to play Tim, but he's also worldly enough to know about Tim's performance slippage. Sergei's game is on the rise, and he knows there's a chance he can beat Tim. It will all come down to concentration and focus.
Each player has a relationship that can pull his focus. Tim's is with his wife Mallory (Troian Bellisario) and their newborn son, Tim Jr., while Sergei's is with his girlfriend Galina (Natalia Payne).
Tim and Mallory met through tennis (Mallory competed for a while and then started coaching young players). They're both aware about the state of Tim's game, and Tim doesn't seem to be overly worried about retiring, mainly because he's still very much a crowd favorite and he enjoys the celebrity. The strain in the relationship comes from difficulties in having a child, something both Mallory and Tim have wanted. The fact that their son has been born has made both of them realize that their lives have changed significantly and is causing them to think about the future in ways that neither had considered previously.
For Sergei, celebrity is nice, but so far he hasn't experienced a lot of it. Galina would like for him to have more, though. She has a taste for fancy restaurants, and celebrity means being treated well. Sergei isn't always clear about his commitment to Galina. He talks about marrying her, but he also enjoys having the occasional fling with a fan.
As the play progresses, Tim and Sergei play their match (on a clever in-the-round set designed by Tim Mackabee). If you don't know anything about how tennis is played, you're not going to find out from watching this play, as the text assumes you know the scoring system and the key elements of the game (the Old Globe's program does contain a helpful glossary that explains these terms). The game is interrupted by the players' distractions, played out in monologues and scenes with their significant others. The play is at its best in the monologues, where the players consider the game, their roles in it, and how their careers have been shaped. Relationships are hard, to coin a cliché, and relationship talk can become melodramatic easily. That talk can still be smoothed out and made as insightful as the monologues, when Ms. Ziegler considers where to go from this production.
Mr. Adams has enough maturity and skill to portray the nuances of Tim's dilemma. The Old Globe has touted the fact that Mr. Adams and Ms. Bellisario are real-life fiancés, but I don't think that adds a great deal to their chemistry as a frustrated married couple. Mr. Mickiewicz's demeanor approaches but doesn't quite achieve the Russian fatalism that seems to underlie Sergei's approach to both tennis and life. Ms. Payne is saddled with the least developed role, and while her portrayal of it is fine, it left me wanting to understand her character better than I did. The two sport acceptable Russian accents, coached by David Huber (though, to American ears, all Russian accents start out sounding like Boris and Natasha and then we adjust to what the actors are really doing).
Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch uses the White Theatre's space exceptionally well and draws the audience into the drama, which is driven by the ups and downs of the tennis match. There is no ability to change costumes, so Denitsa Bliznakova's designs have to make do for court play and the remembered off-court interactions. To me, they don't work well for either situation, though I admit the no-win nature of her task. Bradley King's razzle-dazzle lighting design includes bright stadium-style lighting for the tennis scenes that tends to call attention to itself. Bray Poor has contributed an interesting sound design that includes a number of muffled announcements. Neither Mr. Adams nor Mr. Mickiewicz look like world-class tennis players, but Geoff Griffin's tennis coaching makes one willing to suspend disbelief.
Though somewhat comparable, both in terms of themes and in terms of structure (one act, 95 minutes) to Terrence McNally's Deuce, Ms. Ziegler's version succeeds as a portrait of youth-on-the-verge, as compared to age-looking-back. With some additional smoothing and sharpening she may well earn game, set, and match.
The Old Globe presents the world premiere of The Last Match, by Anna Ziegler. Produced in the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre and running through March 13, 2016. The show performs daily except Monday. Tickets are available by calling 619-234-5623, or by visiting www.theoldglobe.org. The Old Globe is located in San Diego's Balboa Park.