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A CurtainUp Review
The Last Match

Do you know how many matches I've played? This is all I've done. This is what I've done with my life.— Sergei
Deuce. Always deuce. Another deuce.— Tim
I mean, heck. . .it's a shame we get old.— Sergei
Like a whoosh, right past your ear.— Tim
L-R: Wilson Bethel and Alex Mickiewicz (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Anna Ziegler is one of the theater's most productive and original young playwrights. Her BFF in 2007 offered a fresh look at friendship and romantic love. Dov and Ali, which came two years later, was a sensitive exploration of young people torn between following their strictly religious upbringings or a more independent path. The 2015 season brought another contemporary love story, Delicate Ship and Photograph 51, a fascinating scientific suspense drama. Last year Ziegler tackled yet another issue of modern life with Boy, a touching transgender story.

With her Roundabout debut play, The Last Match, Ms. Ziegler takes us to the semifinals of the U.S. Open with Tim Porter (Wilson Bethel), a seasoned star of the sport, and Sergei Sergeyev (Alex Mickiewicz), an upcoming Russian newcomer, engaging in a volatile physical and verbal match. Porter has played this match twelve times, made ten semifinals, nine finals and won six of them. But, at thirty-four, with all the physical wounds that come with this game, rumors of his retirement are easy to believe.

While Tim has always been a hero to the ten years younger Sergei, this Russian rising star is now out to prove himself a worthy contender, both to the world and his ambitious Russian girlfriend Galina. Both Galina and Porter's wife Mallory , herself a former contender are important players in the personal back stories that must be navigated with the same rapid fire back and forth as the actual game.

Of course, Ms. Ziegler isn't the first playwright to use sports as a metaphor for the universal game of life. And tennis has been the game of choice for two of the theater's renowned elder statesmen, Terrence McNally with Deuce and the late A. R. Gurney with Big Bill . Her The Last Match is a vivid and interestingly structured take on the tennis metaphor. Its terrific recreation of the sound and look of a real tennis match and smoothly interspersed monologues and duologues make us privvy to an exciting contest between two talented and dedicated pros, as well as to their off-the-courts lives. Ziegler clearly knows the ins and outs of the rules of the game as well as the ups and downs of what it means to be a pro in any sport.

With a strong assist from set designer, sound and lighting designers Tim Mackabee, Bray Poor and Bradley King, director Gaye Taylor Upchurch has made good use of the Laura Pels stage to make Ziegler's external-internal script structure work to best effect. Thus the entire stage is a replica of the court at the U.S. Open, with a bank of bouncing balls across the top; and a platform at each side with the scoreboards which are updated throughout and have room for the two women to come and go.

Those scoreboards and some of the Tim-Sergey dialogue seems to assume that everyone in the audience is familiar with the elements of the game and how the scoring system works. And, though you don't have to be a tennis buff to get caught up in The Last Match, a page or insert providing a glossary of tennis lingo and scoring rules would enhance a non-aficionado's enjoyment.

That said, when Bethel and Mickiewicz get into position and play another round in the tense match, their physicality is authentic and exciting to watch that it doesn't really matter if you're not sure exactly what's happening. Bethel is actually a first-rate tennis player who has actually worked as a coach And Mickiewicz has had plenty of time to perfect his playing on stage, since he was in the play's premiere production at the Old Globe in California.

The detours from the game to the monologues clarifying how "Deuce. Always deuce" is the mantra for these men's life. In Tim's case, an excruciating back condition makes a likely retirement loom as a scary possibility. Sergei must call up all his feisty bravado to beat his lifelong hero on the court where he's still the favorite. Under Ms. Upchurch's steady direction the men convincingly tackle the physical and emotional nuances of their roles.

Zoe Winters and Natalia Payne are well cast for the subtext of the Tim-Mallory and Sergei-Galina relationships. The character of Winters' Mallory is more complex since she too was a professional tennis player but for her being out front wasn't the be-all and end-all. Unlike Tim, who keeps playing despite severe pain because can't see any other life, she has found a satisfactory way to stay in the game as a coach. However, her inability to have a child is another matter. Touching and beautifully performed as her and Tim's painful path towards parenthood is, it's too drawn out and clichéd.

While Galina is less fully developed than Mallory, her character, especially as portrayed by Natalia Payne, provides a good deal of humor. Her amusing scenes are also something of a fashion show, courtesy of an array of eye-popping costumes provided by Montana Blanco. Dialect coach Ben Furey has helped both Payne and Mickiewicz's to speak with believable Russian accents, and do so consistently.

Ultimately, this is a tough look at life in the fast lane of professional tennis. Naturally, the same uncertainty about how long a winning streak can last is true for politicians, actors, writers and entrepreneurs. With another play beginning an Off-Broadway run next month (at Manhattan Theatre Club's Studio Space), Anna Ziegler certainly seems to be on a winning streak. Here's hoping it lasts for a long time.

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The Last Match by Anna Ziegler
irected by Gaye Taylor Upchurch
Cast: Wilson Bethel (Tim), Alex Mickiewicz (Sergei), Natalia Payne (Galina), Zoe Winters (Mallory)
Sets: Tim Mackabee
Costumes:. Montana Blanco
Lighting: Bradley King
Sound: Bray Poor
Dialect Coach: Tim Furey
Stage Manager: Samantha Watson
Running Time: Approx. 100 minutes
Roundabout'sLaura Pels Theatre 111 W. 46 St.
From 9/28/17; opening 10/24/17; closing 12/24/17
Approx. 100 minutes without intermission. Reviewed by Else Sommer at 10/21 press matinee

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