Last Friday marked the opening night of “The Last Match,” the new play at the B Street Theater, directed by Sherri Barber. Tennis is a summer sport, so it’s fitting this offering plays through the dog days of August until September 1.
As early as Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” tennis has had a place In drama: “Tennis balls, my liege. We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us.” These lines and the tennis emphasis are but a small part of Henry V. They do remind us of the historical elements of the game, its ancient lineage, its shared royal interest in both England and France – and that it’s a kind of nationalist sport.
Tennis, like courtroom conflicts, might superficially seem like a natural for drama, with its inevitable one-on-one contest. But the sport isn’t often center stage. In Henry V, tennis isn’t central, as battle and speeches are.
Still, the modern tennis Grand Slam format offers five sets, and Shakespeare’s plays traditionally had five acts. In “Last Match,” a five-set match provides background to the struggle between Tim Porter (played by Jason Kuykendall), the 34-year-old American perennial champion and Sergei Sergeyev (Hunter Hoffman), the up-and-perhaps-coming Russian challenger.
Former pro Andy Roddick’s moving speech on court (at a point in his career similar to Porter’s) inspired Anna Ziegler to begin this play. Given that five-set Grand Slam efforts can go on for five hours, mercifully the action here has been condensed into 80 minutes of fast-paced, witty and gripping theater.
Unlike many other international sports, tennis preys on nationalistic types and stereotypes. Here, Ziegler provocatively chooses to pit a Russian against an American, even if the most recent Wimbledon marquee match was between Djokovic, a Serb, and Federer, a Swiss. But when has there been threat of war between Serbia and Switzerland? In this play, international tensions presumably exacerbate the rivalry, but as nearly always in contemporary drama, the real conflicts are internal. Each man is battling his own demons.
The Last Match offers a tennis drama that begins on a giant court laid out on the middle of the stage, curving up to the back along with a Jumbotron-type screen projection, on which we see the game and set scores as well as occasional giant closeups of actors as they engage in intimate dialogues. Hoffman and Kuykendall move athletically about the stage, swinging tennis rackets in a pantomime series of shots while simultaneously uttering their lines nearly flawlessly and not tripping over each other; occasionally they add more realism by changing shirts in public, as tennis pros occasionally do.
Hoffman is an aggressive, angry, intemperate, funny Sergei, with a good command of Russian-accented English and a tortured psyche. Kuykendall is an equally believable, bland, a bit less tortured Porter. Initially, the surface of Porter’s life seems more placid and assured, and his character and speeches amplify a kind of uncomplex focus and assurance, while Sergei shows himself as uncertain, self-accusing, unhappy about his status in the rankings, without a major tournament to his name.
But the seesaw progress of the sets, often typical of high-level Grand Slam tennis, is only the apparent surface. Though a player will often describe how they executed or missed a particular passing ground stroke, serve, or lob, behind the tennis action is of course personality, psychology and family background. The desire to win is only the product of these underlying drives for which tennis is simply a powerful focus and map.
Each man is struggling not only against referees and his opponent, but ultimately with himself, with his inner demons, fears, deceptions and goals, that have beset his life for years. These keep coming to the fore even as the points are played, in little set pieces where the principals huddle on or lay extended on the floor and recall or re-enact an event from their personal lives, such as the request for the first date from Porter’s eventual wife, or the moment engagement is proposed between French fries at a New York diner.
The volatile, uncertain Sergei is sometimes his own worst enemy as a tennis player, as when he protests a disputed line call of his serve (ruled out) to such extent that he is penalized the next point for protesting, and of course loses the game.
The conflict between the two men is highlighted and backdropped by the two minor characters, the wives Mallory (Elizabeth Nunziato) and Galina (Stephanie Altholz), background cheerleaders, supporters and critics – though in quite contrasting styles. Galina is sexy, shrill, angry, a bit embittered, a fierce and near-obscene critic of Sergei. Altholz also transforms herself from the stiletto-heeled sexpot she’s offered through much of the evening and plays a memorable, touching and comic scene holding Sergei in her lap in order to teach him how to fall asleep, bit by bit from the toes up – skipping a key central region, which he notices. Mallory, a former tennis star herself and then coach, is the more conventional consort, plagued by attempts to conceive a child.
Last Match engages us in the tennis match itself, but we are eventually riveted by what the exchanges gradually reveal about each combatant’s inner conflict.
If you go
Where: B Street Theater, 2700 Capitol Avenue, Sacramento
When: Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 p.m., with matinees at 2 p.m. on Wednesday and Sunday, and at 5 p.m. Saturday.
Price: Tickets range from $28 to $47
Info and tickets: https://bstreettheatre.org, (916) 443-5300.