Anna Ziegler’s “The Last Match” is this year’s second FST Stage III production. The play takes place at the U.S. Open Tennis Championships — and in the minds of the top two competitors.
As the semifinals begin, the score is love-love. But there’s no love lost between them. Tim (Tom Patterson) is the crowd-pleasing favorite — a polite, “All-American golden boy” from the heartlands.
But he’s not a boy anymore. He’s 34 years old. In athlete-years, that’s a senior citizen. Tim’s still the top-ranked tennis player — and the only place left for him to go is down. Sergei is a 20-something Russian expatriate, who burns with either love or hatred. He’s a competitive pit bull and feels cheated of the superstar status he thinks he deserves.
Both actors deliver athletic performances — in the literal sense. They’ve obviously had expert training in serving, volleys and stances. (Kudos to Ellie Mooney and Benjamin Brandt’s movement coaching.) Both hold tennis rackets, although the imaginary tennis ball is in the mind’s eye. That detail is perfect for this play. It’s all about the inner game of tennis.
Ziegler deftly alternates between what the characters think and what they say out loud. Sergei and Tim’s minds are constantly calculating game play strategy, and constantly analyzing their opponents. In this play, there’s no line dividing the characters from the game. Tennis isn’t a sport they play; it’s who they are.
The two players are evenly matched — and the balance of power shifts from round to round. Their competition isn’t determined by athletic skill and physical strength; it’s a mind game of psychological warfare. Each tries to suss out the others’ weakness and pour salt on their psychic wounds. Tim’s inner demons include the inevitable expiration date of an athlete’s career and his wife’s miscarriages in her attempts to have a baby. Sergei is the eternal outsider. Like any egomaniac, he’s boastful on the outside and insecure within. He’s born to play this game and born to win. It may be his destiny — but he’s not sure he’s having any fun.
Sergei’s fiancée, Galina (Lucy Lavely), is as high-maintenance as they come. Her relationship with Sergei is its own brand of high-stakes competition. They both clearly get a kick out of it. Tom’s wife, Mallory (Anique Clements), had her own tennis career. She gave it up, not to be with him, but because being the 10th best in the world wasn’t good enough for her. Both couples are fiercely in love — and they’re two unbreakable teams.
Director Kate Alexander gets winning performances out of all these top-seeded actors. Ziegler’s well-drawn characters have one thing in common — no two are the same. The characters’ speech patterns and attitudes are highly specific — and these individuals come vividly to life on the Bowne’s Lab stage.
These mind games unfold in a mental space. Clint Wright doesn’t try to recreate a tennis court. He evokes it with a brick wall (complete with Andrew Gray’s projections of the score). Louis Vetter Torres’ sound design makes the match quite real in your mind’s ear. The tennis players debate what a whizzing ball sounds like; Torres makes you hear it. Erin Barnett’s costumes reveal the selves each character chooses to show to the world. Gray’s lighting is usually naturalistic — but flares to surreal brightness in the adrenaline-charged moments that decide who wins and loses.
Ziegler’s multi-dimensional play deals with ambition, competition, loss, the ticking clock of time, the power balances of loving relationships, the tension between public persona and inner self-doubt, and the harsh alternatives of destiny and random chance. It also puts you in the minds (and hearts) of two top athletes – and that’s nothing but fun.
Modern theater is filled with plays about losers, rejects, the marginalized, the suffering and the exploited. That’s worthy and valid. But stories about winners are rare. “The Last Match” is one of them. It’s electrifying, unpredictable and engaging from start to finish. I haven’t hit the tennis court since college. Ziegler’s play makes me want to.
Marty Fugate is a writer, cartoonist and voiceover actor whose passions include art, architecture, performance, film, literature, politics and technology. As a freelance writer, he contributes to a variety of area publications, including the Observer, Sarasota Magazine and The Herald Tribune. His fiction includes sketch comedy, short stories and screenplays. “Cosmic Debris,” his latest anthology of short stories, is available on Amazon.