Writers Theatre’s THE LAST MATCH focuses on the interior lives of two world-famous tennis players, Tim Porter (Ryan Hallahan) of the United States and Sergei Sergeyev (Christopher Sheard) of Russia. The concept of interiority central to Anna Ziegler’s play — and the fact that THE LAST MATCH has only four characters — makes it a particularly keen theatrical production to stage for the purpose of streaming at home. Keira Fromm’s direction plays up the narrative elements in Ziegler’s script — Tim and Sergei frequently use direct address to communicate with the audience. Matt Hoffman’s television direction nicely balances close-up shots and wider shots.
Ziegler plays with the central concept of duality in THE LAST MATCH — as a figurative device focused on the divide between the public and private lives of professional athletes and also by splitting the play between on-court and off-court partnerships. The play alternates scenes between Tim and Sergei in the titular last match at the U.S. Open, which sends up a rumor that the 34-year-old Tim may soon be retiring, and Tim and Sergei’s relationships with their partners, Mallory (Kayla Carter) and Galina (Heather Chrisler). It’s a clever set-up, and it of course deepens the question around of whether the sacrifices to be a professional tennis player (or the life partner of one) are truly worth it.
Smartly, Ziegler’s script does not require the audience to have a deep knowledge of tennis to understand the play or the sport’s immense importance within THE LAST MATCH. In fact, no tennis rackets, balls, or nets factor into William Boles’s set design. Instead, the set features a royal blue floor with crisp white lines to symbolize a tennis court. Tim and Sergei never volley actual balls, but rather Steph Paul’s choreography involves movement suggestive of a tennis game. This is a wise stylistic choice because it keeps the game play from becoming too literal. Similarly, the fluid movements in the staging are well-suited for streaming purposes.
THE LAST MATCH derives its greatest level of poignancy from the fact that it lays bare Tim and Sergei’s interior lives for the audiences. Rarely, if ever, in real life do we have the opportunity to see inside the minds of our favorite professional athletes. THE LAST MATCH makes Tim’s and Sergei’s emotions and vulnerability its centerpiece, and when the play dives into their motivations, it’s at its most powerful. Mallory and Galina’s character arcs are similarly rooted in vulnerability, particularly as we see Mallory’s struggle to fulfill her goal of becoming a parent.
While THE LAST MATCH is a lovely reminder of the humanity that professional athletes, such looming public figures, have, Ziegler also does try to touch on almost all aspects of pro-athlete life in the play: conflicts between professional and personal life, player injuries and chronic pain, familial sacrifices, etc. This “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to exploring the tennis players’ lives means that some of the themes land more than others.
The strong performances ensure though that the themes that do land truly resonate. Hallahan plays Tim as self-assured and endlessly devoted to his sport, so enamored with playing the game. Hallahan shows us every bit of Tim’s drive and the fact that he soaks up the admiration that comes from being in the public eye, and he brings us along for the ride with Tim’s willingness to give tennis his all — even at the sacrifice of his health and occasionally his relationship with Mallory. As Tim’s wife Mallory, Carter easily switches between playful and flirtatious in flashbacks to the early days of their courtship to a woman genuinely haunted by pain and loss after suffering multiple miscarriages.
As Sergei, Sheard is an excellent foil for Tim (and I noted that Noël Huntzinger’s costume design cleverly features Tim in Adidas and Sergei in Nike). He delivers his lines with aplomb, and he strongly conveys his character’s determination. Chrisler is equally winsome as Galina, and she has terrific comedic timing.
THE LAST MATCH ultimately best serves as a reminder of the humanity of professional athletes, and that we would be wise to remember both the physical and emotional sacrifices that often come with the love of the game.
Stream THE LAST MATCH at Writer’s Theatre through May 30. Tickets range from $40 (solo viewer) to $100 (4+ viewers). Visit writerstheatre.org/the-last-match.
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com
Photo courtesy of Writers Theatre