I could fill a post-it note with all the knowledge I have of tennis. What little I do know I learned from playing Mario Tennis as a kid, and I’m pretty sure in real life the ball never bursts into flames. The scoring was always confusing to me, the action tedious, and I have to suppress a giggle anytime somebody says “deuce”. So I was a bit skeptical when I went to see The Last Match, a play that takes place during the U.S. Open, at the City Theatre. But while the action does take place during a “last match”, the play is about much more than mere tennis.
The match in question is between American favorite Tim (Danny Binstock) and younger Russian hotshot Sergei (JD Taylor). The two men take the stage/field and begin telling the audience a bit about themselves. They start playing the match in this same way, by describing the action and miming the use of rackets and such. As they progress they also flashback to important events in their personal lives and their relationships with love interests Mallory (Daina Michelle Griffith) and Galina (Robin Abramson).
The sport itself is spoken about passionately by Tim, Sergei, and Mallory (a former pro). Each had their own reasons for playing the game but they all consider it the most thrilling thing in the world. Any story about sports players has the risk of sounding silly, but Last Match takes the time to really analyze why these characters enjoy it like they do.
But the love of the game also has a downside. The difficulties in starting and raising a family while playing a sport are brought up many times. It’s not just the act of physically getting pregnant, but having the time and energy free to be involved with your family. To some, putting a sport (or any craft) above having a family is seen as selfish. But you really can’t blame the athletes that do so; this is what they love to do more than anything else in the world. Of course they’re going to have troubles letting it go.
The actors have to keep the play moving along for a brisk ninety-plus minutes, and they do so while also bringing well-rounded characters to life. Tim comes from a well-off family but now has to face his own mortality as rumors of his retirement (at thirty-three) and physical limits are made clear. Sergei has had a less-privileged upbringing, but his love of the game pulled him out and by becoming a champ he’ll have succeeded in his eyes. Both Mr. Binstock and Mr. Taylor make these different characters endearing; somehow you find yourself rooting for both of them to take the match. Ms. Griffith starts the play off as a “supporting wife” trope but ends by giving a strong performance full of dark heartbreak. Similarly, Ms. Abramson’s character at first seems like a flamboyant gold-digger, but her true heart eventually shines through.
Enjoying The Last Match doesn’t require a deep knowledge (or even a liking) of tennis. It’s a strong production of a play that shows the struggles of having something in your life that you love above all else. Emotional beats bounce back and forth (like tennis!), because while life is full of pain you can always find something beautiful. The Last Match will make you laugh, cry, and give you a sore neck. It’ll make you believe in “love”. It will raise a “racket”. It even has a nice “set”. I give it a nine out of tennis.
The Last Match
Directed by Tracy Brigden
Written by Anna Ziegler
Designed by Narelle Sissons (scenery), Susan Tsu (costumes), Ann G. Wrightson (lighting), Joe Pino (sound)
Starring Robin Abramson (Galina), Danny Binstock (Tim), Daina Michelle Griffith (Mallory), JD Taylor (Sergei)
Special thanks to City Theatre for complimentary press tickets. The Last Match runs through May 15th in the Hamburg Studio, tickets and more information can be found here.