Back and forth, back and forth go the volleys between defending champion Tim Porter and his challenger, Sergei Sergeyev, at the US Open. And so, too, go our loyalties between the two men, as they unspool for us the thoughts, fears, and memories zipping through their heads in the midst of their high-stakes match.
On its surface, Anna Ziegler’s play The Last Match is a character study, of two highly competitive superathletes and of the two women they love. And as character studies go, it’s an appealing one: American tennis star Tim (Danny Binstock) has the easy confidence and entitlement of a man who’s been a lifelong winner. He seems in possession of a completely charmed life: beautiful wife Mallory (Daina Michelle Griffith), newborn son, walls of trophies, millions of adoring fans. So naturally, when the play opens, we’re quickly aligned with Russian underdog Sergei (the winsome, trickster-ish JD Taylor), a young hothead who has scrabbled and fought his way to the top ranks. Sergei’s past is darker than Tim’s: where Tim rose to the heights of tennis with the full support of a loving middle-class family, Sergei left his working-class home at a young age, a decision that led to his success at tennis but irrevocably estranged him from his family. Now the only person in Sergei’s life is his fiancé Galina (Robin Abramson), a tough, take-no-prisoners Russian compatriot who has ambition to burn.
The play’s narrative framework is the tennis match that brings the two athletes together. As they “play” game after game (indicated, thankfully, by minimally sketched slow motion movement), we’re brought into their headspaces and given a peek into what drives them, what keeps them in the game and motivated, and what has the capacity to disarm them, both physically and psychologically. The script has the actors shifting quickly from telling us what they are thinking and feeling to showing us moments from the past, and director Tracy Brigden stages these shifts fluidly on Narelle Sissons’s minimalist set, which gestures at a tennis court with its astroturf surface and glossy blue scoreboard but readily doubles as a café or park as the scene requires. The pared down look of the production carries over into Susan Tsu’s costumes – brightly colored tennis togs for the men, sharp iconic pieces for the women – and into Ann G. Wrightson’s clean, spare lighting design. Joe Pino’s sound design helps the imagination fill in what the set leaves out, situating us smack dab in the middle of the court with “pocks” of racket against ball and “whooshes” of ball through air.
The Last Match provides illuminating insight into the mindset of tennis champions. But to my mind the real accomplishment of this play lies in the way it skillfully shifts your sympathy from character to character: you may begin, as I did, rooting for the underdog Sergei, but part way through you may find yourself wanting Tim to win, and then back to Sergei again, until by play’s end you really don’t want either of these guys to win or lose. Tim starts out seeming like the kind of cocky braggart you want to get his comeuppance, but he becomes increasingly sympathetic as he reveals that his life has not been nearly as smooth sailing as it appears from a distance. Sergei, likewise, has moments of narcissistic assholery that make him less of an appealing underdog. Consequently, I left the theatre thinking less about the characters than about all the ways framing narratives shape our alliances, both to the good and the bad. A mentor of mine once attributed the political potency of theatre, film, and television to the fact that it’s hard to hate someone after you’ve empathized with their story. That’s the good. The bad is that it can be too easy to acclimate yourself to someone who figures out ways of framing assuaging narratives (I’m thinking here of what slowly seems to be happening among the Republican establishment vis-à-vis their once-reviled nominee; I’m also thinking of the piquant German comedic film Er ist wieder da, or Look Who’s Back).
In the end, The Last Match cleverly confronts our desire to take sides and root for “our” team or champion, leaving us, championless, to ponder how readily that desire can be manufactured and manipulated.