Set primarily on the court at the U.S. Open and punctuated by flashbacks that fill in the players’ histories, “The Last Match” feels like it’s missing a final, climactic scene.
Playwright Anna Ziegler defaults with ‘The Last Match” by creating nail-biting tension over a denouement she doesn’t deliver. What follows isn’t a spoiler, it’s a deeply disappointing dramatic flaw, made all the more frustrating because Writers Theatre’s otherwise all-aces streaming production makes you feel deeply for the players.
But after building relentlessly toward the make-or-break outcome of the titular tennis match that frames the four-character play, “The Last Match” cops out. Imagine watching a breathlessly close Wimbledon final, only it culminates without a winner being declared. That’s the sense of deflation “The Last Match” ultimately serves.
Fromm’s cast scores nonetheless because it is so intensely watchable. For Russian challenger Sergei (Christopher Sheard), American world champion Tim (Ryan Hallahan) and their romantic partners Galina (Heather Chrisler) and Mallory (Kayla Carter), everything rides on the U.S. Open match. Its outcome will be life-changing for all involved, its consequences lifetimes in the making. Tim, once named the best tennis player in the world by the New York Times, is now 34 and plagued by injury, self-doubt and personal tragedy. Sergei is the volatile young upstart who once idolized the American player but is hellbent on taking him down.
Set primarily on the court and punctuated by flashbacks that fill in the players’ histories, “The Last Match” feels like it’s missing a final, climactic scene.
Choreographer Steph Paul has Hallahan and Sheard in constant, kinetic motion as they spar and volley and relive key moments of their lives. William Boles’ set is net-less tennis court, a looming electronic backboard broadcasting neon scores (lighting by Christine Binder) as the players dart back and forth. Nobody actually holds a racket or lobs a ball. But between Hallahan and Sheard’s exquisite form and the whiz and thunk of Pornchanok Kanchanabanca’s sound design, it sure looks and sounds like they’re actually playing.
Throughout, Fromm uses tennis to explore themes that transcend sport: Failure, ambition and death, tennis as a metaphor for all. As the match progresses, “The Last Match” becomes both a joyful celebration of being alive and a grim look at the inevitable breakdown and decay of our bodies. Aging is inherently dramatic for everyone, but for elite athletes, it can spiral into a bona fide tragedy and an existential crisis. Ziegler mines the topic for all its drama.
As the legendary veteran, Hallahan is a hyper-focused, tightly-wound, pure type-A, ego-driven super-competitor, trained to play through pain and anything else that might distract him from winning. Where Hallahan’s Tim tries to keep his emotions as tightly sealed as an vacuum-sealed can of tennis balls, Sheard’s Sergei wears his on his sleeve, as clearly as the blood-orange Nike swoosh on his gear. (Costume designer Noël Huntzinger provides plenty of subtle clues into character with her work). Sergei’s raw ambition has him cresting the apex, just as Tim begins comes to grips with descending it.
As Mallory and Galina, Carter and Chrisler, respectively, bring nuance and layers to the underwritten romantic interests. This isn’t their story, and both are ancillary. They’re memorable nonetheless — Galina all fire and ice and ruthless pragmatism, Mallory radiating warmth and generosity.
“The Last Match” was scheduled to run live last year, pre-COVID. As a streaming show, it has a cinematic flair that’s both an attribute and a detriment. HMS Media’s sharp use of close-ups brings an intense clarity of focus to intensely emotional moment, its wider shots capturing the grace and beauty of elite athletes. As the boundaries of the set blur into blackness in the wider shots, it strengthens the feeling that court is the only place in the universe, the players in a world unto themselves. The downside is familiar at this point in COVID: Watching alone at home is no replacement for the adrenaline rush of that comes with experiencing a live show in communion with a live audience.
“The Last Match” has many attributes. It’s a shame that its conclusion — such as it is — detracts from them.