For M. Craig Getting’s production of Anna Ziegler’s The Last Match, the intimate 120-seat Lantern (St. Stephen’s) Theater is transformed by scenic designer Lance Kniskern into the 23,771-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, Queens—home of the U.S. Open Tennis Championship.
Like the stadium, the set is dominated by the U.S. Open’s trademark blue and green. According to Sports Illustrated, the choice of these colors was scientific: “The trademark blue is just about the exact opposite color of a yellow Wilson tennis ball on the Isaac Newton color wheel, providing the most contrast for spectators and players. But the U.S. Open wanted a trademarked green too—which actually has yellow built in to limit the contrast with the ball.”
I opened this review in this fashion because I wanted to appear like I know anything at all about tennis, beyond the fact that I did a history report once in 6th grade on the great Arthur Ashe. I know nothing about the game at all. For the sake of this review I learned a few tennis terms used in this play: “Lob” is a ball you hit high if your opponent is near the net so he can’t return it; “Deuce” means even.*
Walking in I was aware that while in exile in France, King Charles II of England visited the tennis court theaters like the Théâtre du Marais which was originally a tennis court transformed into a theater. As a result the English theaters of the Restoration period—particularly Christopher Wren’s Theatre Royal—were influenced by the those french tennis court theaters. Sitting in the opening night audience I was thinking: “This not so crazy turning the theater into a tennis court….it’s actually returning theater to it’s roots sort of…right?”
I may not know anything about tennis but the facts of the play are: We’ve arrived at the semifinals of the U.S. Open, the final Grand slam of the calendar year, the last of four major tournaments—the Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon all came before now. The two professional players we see have just spent 30 weeks on the road. They are both at the top of their game. There is no one in the world is better at tennis than these two men at this moment. Upstage right on this vacant stage is the reigning tennis king, Tim Porter (Scott Miller).
An All-American tennis king in his mid-30s, Tim Porter says “This is my tournament—my house. I own this court; I always have and I will again. I have to. I have to…because my son is here. He’s two months old and it feels like the sky’s a different color than it’s ever been before.”
Downstage left is Sergei (Matteo Scammell), a ferociously talented pro-player in his mid-20s who grew up idolizing Tim Porter, after watching him on television from an orphanage in Russia. Now today his sole purpose is to destroy the idol of his youth.
Playwright Anna Ziegler drops us deep into this intricate game, and allows us into heads of the players in a truly enormous Thorton Wilder-esque-Carl Sagan-ish-grand-scope fashion that leaves one stunned. She gets us there on a microscopic level one second the players are debating whether the yellow Wilson ball makes a “whizzing” sound or more of “whooshing”, and ten minutes later we’ve reached the macroscopic sun, moon and stars. The dialogue is served up at a rapid-fire pace as fast as that whooshing-whizzing Wilson ball resembling the pace of a repetition exercise in a Sanford Meisner acting class.*
The women of this play have the rough task of serving as mere figments of their husband/boyfriend’s imagination. (They exist solely as memories of the male players). This is particularly evident in Joanna Liao precise yet somehow one-dimensional performance as Tim’s level-headed wife, Mallory. Yet, to be fair I did see this play on opening night, when adrenaline is at it’s peak—like a well-placed lob this production perhaps needs time to land, though you have faith it will.
What fans my faith? The versatile power of Lee Minora as Sergi’s girlfriend, the ferocious survivor, Galina. She steals the show when she says in an throw-down battle with Scammell’s Sergi:
Oh, you sound like my mother: “why don’t you go to work and earn the money if you insist on buying that fancy lipstick. No girl your age needs lipstick, let alone a fancy one like that, plus it makes you look like a whore.’ So I said: “my lips are my lips, to do with as I please” and she said “I made those lips” and I said: “I am not inside of you and have not been inside of you for many years during which time I have come to see how everything about you is despicable”…and she said: “You are awful terrible child, I don’t believe I did make you. And then she retreated into her hole where she always retreated…. and we didn’t speak for weeks, and eventually I grew up, I moved out of the house and eventually found you who will go on to be brave in ways she could not.
Here Ziegler eloquently distills a large portion of Galina’s life, her childhood baggage, and trauma or struggle for independence is brought to the stage now in one foul-swoop so clearly distilled into a short cutting internal tennis match of her own.
[Lantern Theater at St. Stephen’s Theater, 923 Ludlow Street] November 6-December 15, 2019; lanterntheater.org
*Tennis terms defined by the game’s biggest fan who was not able to make it to the show, Pat Roche. His definitions were more succinct than internet.
* Repetition or the Repetition Exercise or Game was developed by Sandy Meisner in the USA to train actors to actively listen to each other and pay attention to their stage partners. … In Meisner’s view and that of practitioners of Practical Aesthetics, actors should listen and should not set their performances in stone. https://www.emasla.com/what-does-the-meisner-technique-teach/