We’re center court at Arthur Ashe Stadium for the semifinals of the U.S. Open tennis championship. Tim Porter, ranked #1 in the world for three years, faces Sergei Sergeyev, the fiery Russian currently #10. Rumor says it’s Porter’s last Open. Will he go out on top? Or will the hyper-skilled Sergeyev drop his entire turnstile of baggage, play free-form, and prevail in a major upset?
During the five-set match, Anna Zeigler’s comedy-drama enters the minds of the competitors, along with Tim’s wife, Mallory, and Sergei’s fiancée, Galina.
As in a near-death experience, their lives flash before their eyes; they recall ups and downs and roads to the top. Except for Mallory’s tragic miscarriages, Porter’s rise to fame has been “storybook.” He’s got six U.S. Open titles. And given Sergei’s streaky play — and quirky brain — surely a seventh. So, why would Tim want to step down? And why is the play called the “last” match? If Tim wins, he goes on to the finals, right?
So, is the ending in the title? That’s one of several nagging problems with this world premiere. Another: if these world-class athletes have made it to the semis, they’d be so focused, they’d banish every stray thought and just react. Imagine Serena Williams at Wimbledon rocketing an ace and, on her way back to the service line, recalling the rather indifferent Merlot that almost put a damper on last night’s tête-à-tête.
Another problem: the play raises interesting, though often clichéd, questions about fame, relationships, letting go, the brief reigns of athletes. But most of the talky dialogue explains rather than probes them. It does our thinking, even our analysis, for us. Sergei even announces the play's theme, "The Nature of Want," for all to hear.
And the back-and-forth form becomes predictable: the tennis, then break to a couple’s troubles; more tennis, more troubles. When the scoreboard on the wall says we’re in the third set, then we still have two more sets — and four more sets of troubles — to come.
There are plusses. Tim Mackabee’s set’s a blue-surfaced tennis court, with no net, the size of a boxing ring. Bray Poor’s outstanding sound design matches the bounce of the ball and the crack of the racket stroke-for-stroke.
As played by Alex Mickiewicz, Sergei’s a fully drawn creation, packed with self-deprecating, often acerbic humor. Whenever he’s onstage, the production perks up. But when he’s offstage, the more “serious” scenes wane by comparison.
The other three characters are little more than types: the aging superstar whose end draws near; the wife who opts for life; the almost-supportive lover. That they must be parts of a larger scheme adds to the sameness.
Troian Bellisario (Mallory) and Natalia Payne (Galina) bring energy and obvious commitment to their roles, even when compartmentalized into functions. Though neither he nor Mickiewicz has proper tennis form (they hit with their upper bodies, not their legs), Patrick J. Adams does what he can with an almost unsympathetic character.
It doesn’t help that the play explains Porter's loss rather than let him, and us, feel what it’s like to stand atop a majestic pinnacle and see only clouds below.
Playing through March 13