Tennis players are always naked, especially in singles matches. That’s part of what makes the sport so unique, so beautiful and compelling. One athlete, all alone, on one side of a net, versus another, all alone, on the other side of the net. There is nowhere to hide one’s flaws and vulnerabilities, and one’s momenta are fleeting as is one’s attention span. What the crowd doesn’t see is the internal and external struggles that the players face, on and off the court. The Last Match (Lantern Theater Company, through Dec. 15, Philadelphia premiere) addresses that angle of the sport, delivering views from the bleachers, the sidelines and the court.
Playwright Anna Ziegler (Photograph 51) presents a familiar scene, familiar to tennis fans at least: the seasoned but declining perennial champion against the young, rising intemperate talent. Scott Miller plays Tim Porter, the American in his mid-30s (which is ancient in tennis years) vying for at least one more Grand Slam championship at the U.S. Open, after falling in the early rounds at Wimbledon. Matteo Scammell is Sergei Sergeyev, the young Russian up-and-comer for whom breaking the top 20 was a step, not a goal. They co-narrate the action and their stories, volleying their stories back and forth in conjunction with the semi-final match upon which the play is grounded.
Yes, they act out the match, but interspersed within are their personal stories that are affecting them in-game, positively and negatively. Tim Porter and his wife Mallory, a former tennis star, outline their struggles to have a child. Sergei recalls his courtship with Galina (Lee Minora), who serves as an ersatz tennis mother to the orphaned young star. The action happens on a small replica of, ostensibly, Arthur Ashe Stadium. Scenic designer Lance Kniskern’s set includes scoreboards and sidewalls, with the audience on all four sides of the action. The lines of the court itself, though, are at 45-degree angles to the stands, removing the standard boundaries and allowing the actors to roam freely while still effectively mimicking gameplay. Kudos to the lighting designer, Mike Inwood, as well, for replicating the blinding spotlights that stadia employ once the sun dims.
Zeigler delves into as many perspectives and depths as possible during the 100-minute one-act play, including the players’ relationships with their lovers, their parents, their fellow athletes and their fans. She successfully mines their motivations, anticipating the audience’s questions. The Last Match also explores our competitive natures, and that in turn drives the drama, to wit: what happens when two people who refuse to quit, who refuse to lose, face one another? Tennis insists upon producing one winner and one loser, but as the play illustrates, it’s impossible to maintain extreme focus throughout an entire match, but it’s also possible to define “winning” in multiple ways. As Tim Porter says, “how do you get to the bottom of wanting?” You reach the Top 20, and you want the Top 10. You get that, and you want Top 5. You win a Grand Slam, and that’s not enough; you want all the Grand Slams. And on and on.
Director M. Craig Getting sustains the intensity throughout the characters’ individual and collective development and growth. Our top athletes are passionate. They are compelled to win. They are able to play through pain that would sideline any mere mortal. But sometimes, biology doesn’t comply, and Getting is able to deliver this point with all due heft. A bad back is a bad back; an uncooperative uterus cannot always be controlled. Mortality is an excruciating realization to an athlete whose livelihood depends on capitalizing upon the effectiveness and endurance of his or her fleshy habitus.
The Last Match offered several laugh-out-loud moments, mostly delivered by Minora and Scammel in thick Slavic accents. However, the stereotype of the “winning-is-everything” Russian mentality is, at this point, a trope, and I would have liked to have seen a different counter-perspective to the earned arrogance of Tim Porter. But that’s a minor complaint. The Last Match shows us that life is about more than winning or losing, and it’s more than “how you play the game”; it’s also about how you get to the game, and who – and what – drives you to the top.
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Thursday, November 7 – Sunday, December 15, 2019