Monday, April 18, 2016

Tennis Anyone? City Theatre Serves up "The Last Match"


JD Taylor as Sergei and Danny Binstock as Tim in "The Last Match" Photo Credit: Kristi Jan Hoover
There’s an interesting symmetry and balance in playwright Anna Ziegler’s "The Last Match," now getting a staging at the City Theatre on Pittsburgh’s South Side.
A four character play, "Match" features two men and two women caught up in the excitement and fierce competition of the semi-finals in the U.S. Open. The script takes us right into the heat of the match, an evenly divided series of initial sets in which both players share the wins.
The playwright also plays with time and location, taking us out of the moment with flashbacks and various location changes where the tennis headliners interact with their significant others. Both scenarios get almost equal symmetrical play, which drives the plot along its 90-minute, intermissionless com-dram arc.
Tim ( Danny Binstock), a 33-year old six time Open winner, is pitted against Russian-born Sergei (JD Taylor), an up-and-coming potential star who’s yet to win a significant match but feels that now is his time.
Both men have their own singular set of issues. Tim  hasn’t won anything big the current tennis season and is feeling the tug of an aging body, even though he’s at a time of life that most of the audience the evening I attended would probably give their eye teeth to return to, myself included.
He’s also caught up in a marital relationship that’s been unable to produce progeny, a failure that plagues and torments his wife Mallory (Daina Michelle Griffith), herself a former tennis player who’s now forced to coach due to a knee injury.
Born into the upper middle class, Tim didn’t suffer  the economic disadvantages experienced by Sergei, who was born in an obscure village on the Caspian (if I heard right) and later orphaned. What both have in common is their devotion to their sport and their drive to win to the point of obsession. Both are also passionately urged on by their female partners who cheer and goad them to triumph from the stands.
Back stories take us into the past where the players rehash some of the important events of their lives, retelling their hardships, woes, disappointments, triumphs and joys. Tim has spent his life constantly trying to improve his sport, which left him little time for anything else. With retirement now a bit closer than he’d like, he mulls over the thought of a lackluster life off the tennis circuit.
As a pro tennis playing husband, Binstock evokes a caring, affectionate  relationship with Mallory, and is sensitive to her worries about being childless. On the other hand, he manages his jock persona as deftly as his purported wicked serve and smashing backhand.
A young firecracker, Taylor as Sergei is intoxicatingly amusing, an antic personality who instinctively knows when to turn it down in the scenes that move from the athletic competition to interaction with his wife, Galina (Robin Abramson)..
Sporting audibly authentic Russian accents a la dialect coach, Don Wadsworth, both Taylor and Abramson are fiery spirits, and its fun to watch them play cat and mouse with one another, toying romantically as much as Sergei and Tim play out their mental games on the court.
Abramson is especially colorful and theatrically charismatic as Sergei’s domineering Slavic paramour, a vamp who comes across as cold as a Russian winter but also with a hinting whisper of a warmer spring breeze just over the horizon.
As a counterpoint to the tough-skinned, Galina, Griffith shows a more low key personality, but one capable of firing up when the talk moves to topics like winning at tennis or family.
Part of the comic drama’s allure is the exploration of the psychology in play during the match that transcends the mere physicality and athletic prowess of the dueling tennis stars. They try, in some cases successfully, to rattle one another, challenging one another with psychological salvos in between volleys and serves.
    Scenic designer, Narelle Sissons, keeps things minimalist with nothing more to intimate the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where the U.S. Open is played, than a couple of white chairs and an occasional table, nice fits for the intimate Hamburg Studio stage.
    While I do get enthralled by an elaborate set, fully detailed, I equally enjoy a visual blank canvas that seems to serve as a catalyst to my usually lethargic imagination. While we don’t get racquets and balls or even a net in the City Theatre production, we do get some excellent, in-sync sound effects from Joe Pino that are so effective in replicating the snap of a ball off the racquet you almost want to duck out of the way.
    To keep score as to who’s winning each game along with who’s leading in the match, lighting designer, Ann G. Wrightson projects a helpful, blown-up, score card at the back of the stage.
Even if you know very little about tennis, you should enjoy this finely tuned production directed with snap and panache by Tracy Bridgen. As a primer to the sport, the theater’s administrative staff includes a write up in the program that outlines some of the rules and history of the game.
    The production's fine acting, exemplary writing, and solid direction and technical support are still not enough to propel the play into the A class of dramatic experiences. But as every high school freshman knows, a B is still better than average.
"The Last Match is at the City Theatre on Pittsburgh’s South Side through May 15. For tickets, phone 412-431-2489 www.citytheatrecompany.org.

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