Tennis is not a metaphor for life, somebody says in Anna Ziegler’s new play The Last Match, now in its world premiere at the Old Globe Theatre. “It’s just tennis.”
OK, fine. I’m ready to be guided by Ziegler’s dialogue. But, as allegory seems to keep leaking out at the edges of an otherwise standard sandwich of athletic aspirations, I realize the author is just demonstrating with this comment more of the mind games championship athletes play.
Tennis is a game about which I know little and care less. Life is what’s important. So: Tennis as Life.
The scene is the U.S. Open, with Wimbledon in England and other “opens” in Australia and France, one of the four biggest events on the pro tennis circuit. The opponents are the American Tim Porter, world’s reigning No. 1 player, and Sergei Sergeyev, a formidable younger Russian moving up the ranks quickly. History (tennis division) is waiting to be made.
Porter is feeling all of his 33 years plus the burden of growing his young family. Sergeyev’s battles are mostly in his head, where he must fight his natural rage, his frustration with delay, his bullying sense of entitlement. Each is tormented by doubts of strategy, of readiness, of support system fragilities. Etcetera.
The women in their lives are both comforting and challenging. Porter’s wife is worn out by failed pregnancies and frustrated envy over her own wrecked tennis career. Sergeyev’s fiancé is a complex tangle of, well, Russianness. Each represents – loudly, emotionally and uncensored – the demands of Real Life. So, make way for the metaphors.
Ultimately, these all are likeable, even admirable, characters worth rooting for. And they all may turn out winners in Life. But there can be but one winner on the court, so Ziegler has little choice but to go vague at the end. Somewhere, they may be volleying yet.
The play is nicely crafted and mildly involving, perhaps more so for tennis people. But the staging is terrific. Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch has teased out ways to suggest sufficiently the tournament atmosphere even in the confined pit of the Globe’s White Theatre’s arena.
Set designer Tim Mackabee has made everything a grass-green at once comforting and tense, with careful attention to the tiniest of details. Nothing very specific, just a suggestive space, lit precisely by Bradley King and washed with inventive variations of crowd noise assembled by Bray Poor. Costumes, by Denitsa Bliznakova, are about what you’d expect. (Although don’t tennis player take off their warm-ups for games?)
What Taylor has done to fascinating effect is suggest the game itself. Her two actors are choreographed brilliantly in game movement suggestions that yield gracefully clear to the physical needs of all that metaphor. No tennis balls are present. They don’t even hold rackets. Thanks to the cleverness of director and designers, everything seems just natural.
Well, maybe not everything. Though Patrick J. Adams wears well a practiced gee-whiz charm as Tim, the champion’s body just isn’t there. Alex Mickiewicz as Sergei seems closer to the expected, but it’s hard to tell in those splashy crimson warm-ups. The ladies, by contrast, bring the hard-body level of the cast well above average.
As the American wife, Troian Bellisario faces the widest range of challenges, from near-hysteria to flirty sarcasm, but finds only a stereotype. Natalia Payne is responsible for so much boiling-over Russian underdog rant that her burning fuse is almost visible.
They’re all fine, actually. And from comments overheard in the departing audience, the tennis folk seem satisfied and even charmed. So, give some credit to Geoff Griffin, billed as the show’s “tennis consultant.”
Continues in the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays=Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through March 13, 2016.