Lots of plays address athletes' struggles and stresses, but Anna Ziegler's “The Last Match” does an unusually balanced job of presenting the ambition and anxiety, promise and pitfalls, triumphs and trials.
Although Writers Theatre's live production was canceled in March 2020 just days before the first preview, the filmed version brings the characters vividly to life, thanks to Keira Fromm's keen direction and the terrific cast.
This is no easy task because the play's structure is schematic, and the characters are almost as generic as individual. Ziegler audaciously creates a more-or-less real-time tennis match during the semifinals of the U. S. Open, interspersing the action with flashbacks and confrontations on and off the court.
The catch is that there are no rackets, no balls, no net. William Boles scenic design — filmed in Writers' Gillian Theatre — merely suggests the court, with white lines painted on the blue floor and a giant LED scoreboard by lighting designer Christine Binder. Pornchanok Kanchanabanca's sound design and Steph Paul's choreography do the rest, along with Ziegler's words delivered by the players, who are polar opposites but perfectly matched.
Tim Porter (Ryan Hallahan), who we see first as he describes the exciting “whoosh” of the ball, is the American golden boy, six-time U.S. Open winner, a real champion and the one to beat. But he's also 34 and suffering from severe back pain. Rumors of his retirement have been circulating.
The challenger is scrappy Russian player Sergei Sergeyev (Christopher Sheard), a decade his junior. Despite a meteoric rise in international tennis rankings, he's angry, insecure and determined to beat Porter. Noël Huntzinger's costumes—crisp blue-and-white for Tim, red-and-black with a headband for Sergei—underscore their differences nicely, while, vocally, Hallahan's deep resonance contrasts with Sheard's pronounced but not cartoonish Russian accent.
The play would arguably work as a two-hander, but Ziegler pairs each contender with his love interest. Tim's wife, Mallory (Kayla Carter) is also a tennis player but not in his class, so she turned coach, then gave that up to try to start a family. Sergei's Russian girlfriend, Galina (Heather Chrisler), a sometime-actress who doesn't like auditioning, is a fiery force of nature determined to egg him on whenever his considerable confidence flags.
The women definitely play second fiddle to their men, but they serve a useful function in facilitating exposition and furthering the plot. Flashbacks trace Tim and Mallory's courtship, not only making their efforts to get pregnant heart-breaking, but also illuminating his conflicts over maintaining success and the adulation that comes with it versus giving it up to pay more attention to his family and admitting that age is catching up with him.
Sergei's issues range from childhood traumas to his hero worship of Tim. Much of the humor in the 100-minute one act comes from his battles with Galina about his career and their relationship, because both Sheard and Chrisler have impeccable comic timing.
Tim and Sergei's encounters, which could be clichés, benefit from a complexity born of their admiration for each other's talent and accomplishments despite their clashing temperaments and styles. Like the costumes, the fact that Hallahan is tall and slim, whereas Sheard is shorter and more muscular, provides a nice visual counterpoint.
Not surprisingly, the tennis game in “The Last Match” is a metaphor for life, but Ziegler (who also wrote “Photograph 51” recently produced at Court Theatre) doesn't hit us over the head with the idea. Even the title is a bit ambiguous: Does “last” mean “final” or “previous”?
And, who wins, you may ask? The veteran or the upstart? You'll have to view the show to find out.