When you walk into Off-Broadway’s Laura Pels Theatre, you may feel you landed in Flushing, Queens, rather than Manhattan. Roundabout Theatre Company’s space has been transformed to evoke The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center’s Arthur Ashe Stadium—the iconic 22,547-seat arena where champions battle during the annual fortnight of the U.S. Open—for their latest play The Last Match.
Currently running through December 24, Anna Ziegler’s play kicks off as Tim Porter, the 34-year-old All American champion rumored to be retiring, faces off in the U.S. Open semifinals against Sergei Sergeyev, the 24-year-old hot-headed Russian whose temper obstructs his success. The onstage action rallies between the high-stakes, heart-pumping match and the memories that pump up or haunt the two competitors and ultimately affect their mental game.
For scenic designer Tim Mackabee, “the hardest part wasn’t designing the tennis court,” he says. “It’s that—because there are so few things onstage—we found that the audience cared so much.” Mackabee needed to make maximum impact with minimal objects to allow the action to flow between the match at hand and the memories of the two competitors.
“Anna was clear from day one: We don’t want to portray a realistic tennis court because, at the end of the day, it’s not really about tennis,” says Mackabee. A trial-and-error strategy punctuated his process, beginning with the play’s first iteration at San Diego’s Old Globe. “You had to take a step back and go, ‘What will work for that intimate scene and what also doesn’t feel wrong when we’re on a tennis court?’”
Here, Mackabee gives us a virtual tour of his set. Scroll the 360-degree photo and explore the elements he designed to a T.
BEYOND THE PROSCENIUM
The first iteration of the play took place in California’s Old Globe, set in the round. While not fully in the round Off-Broadway, The Last Match eschews the typical proscenium setting of the Pels and wraps around the front of the orchestra for a stadium feel.
“In the show, you have to follow these two guys who play a tennis game and kind of jump back to their real life; you need interesting points for their wives to come from and bisect the tennis game, and in the round that's really easy,” says Mackabee. “When we moved to a proscenium we still needed that weird, interesting, abstract point of entry for these women, but how do you do it when most people are staring towards the front of something? We took out the first row of seats in the Pels, and we elected to push the show really, really, really downstage. Architecturally at the Pels, they have those [accessible] ramps, [and] we walked in and went, 'Oh, these boxes!' You get guard rails, you get a natural place for an actor to stand where everyone in the house can see it—which was a happy accident because I thought that would never happen. Trying to continue to break the feel of the proscenium, we took that idea of the stadium lights and just exploded it and had it wrap well inside the house so the audience isn’t really perceiving/watching a show through a proscenium in a traditional way.”
As the match progresses and audiences invest in the personal stories behind the players, Mackabee still needed a way for the audience to keep score—to understand the pressure at any given point.
“It was very important to Anna, the playwright, that you could always click back with your eye and estimate where you were in the game and see where the stakes were at any point in the show,” Mackabee explains. “We tried a version in San Diego where the scoreboards were behind the actors, and then you just get so invested in the technology of numbers changing, and it take you out of it. We had to consciously find the sweet spot of ‘I can go back to this thing and get information I need from it but it can't upstage the human being.’ And those are real electrode flippers like they use in athletic scoreboards.”
From logos to paint colors, Mackabee replicated exact details of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“We worked with the [USTA] in San Diego,” says Mackabee, got into the mud of corporate permissions to get the authentic flaming tennis ball logo for the U.S. Open—and more. “Citizen is on the scoreboard!” he said of the longtime tournament sponsor. “They all have restrictions of how they can use their logos and their size and what color it can be and what color it goes against. So when you get the right to use that artwork, it comes with a lot of parameters—most of which are good and easy. When we did the show originally, we took a guess of the blue and green, and [my assistant] happened to be at the U.S. Open and he took a paint swatch book for me and swatched the blue and green. Arthur Ashe Stadium couldn’t provide color information. They were just like, ‘It’s the blue we always use.’ And the floor is actually textured with the same thing they texture tennis courts with—a smooth spongy grit. When they are jumping around, their sneakers are actually grabbing something. It's as real a tennis court surface as you could put in there.”
While authenticity was a priority for Mackabee’s court, the movable pieces of his set required more flexibility. He took feedback from audiences in California and New York to ace the final elements of the design.
“We started with super realistic U.S. Open chairs, those more web-backed chairs, but they have to be used in scenes,” he says. “Once you pull the actual tennis chair down and put it at a table and try to do a realistic scene, all you're doing is watching someone try to sit in that kind of chair. And what people react to, how particular people are [is funny]. What is visually iconic to the audience, you just have to start and do it and see.”
The Last Match stars Wilson Bethel, Alex Mickiewicz, Natalia Payne, and Zoë Winters in a production directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. Scenic design is by Tim Mackabee, with lighting design by Tony winner Bradley King, costume design by Montana Blanco, and sound design by Gray Poor.