Can you imagine trying to knit a sweater with no yarn? An analogous process is taking place nightly at the Plymouth Theater, as Frank Langella valiantly attempts to conjure an evening’s entertainment from the wispy fibers of Stephen Belber’s “Match.” Playing a former ballet dancer with a secret in his past, Langella does everything but grand jete into the audience’s lap in his efforts to levitate this stubbornly earthbound, protracted and seriously contrived new play.
Langella’s Toby Powell is, in fact, knitting as the curtain rises on his comfortably cluttered apartment, colorfully rendered by designer James Noone, who evinces an attention to detail that easily outstrips the playwright’s. Toby soon puts aside the scarf to prepare for visitors, and Langella turns this dithering into a funny little dance of domestic absurdity, whisking away a bowl of stale Doritos and nervously primping their replacement, a pile of Chex.
His guests turn out to be a willowy young woman, Lisa (Jane Adams), and her taciturn husband, Mike (Ray Liotta). She’s working on a dissertation about “dance and the history of classical dance choreography in this country, and the question as to in what sense does that genre fit into the future arts scene here.” That garbled, vague proposal might have clued Toby in to a darker purpose at hand, as might the unnecessary, somewhat menacing presence of Mike.
But Toby sees nothing amiss and happily regales the kids with tales of his peripatetic career as a dancer and teacher, which took him from small-town Maine to such exotic locales as Cuba and Geneva. Arms fluttering like windmills, eyes rolling skyward during Toby’s bursts of camp, or Mike’s occasional glowering rejoinder, Langella hyperventilates his way through Toby’s windy reminiscences with impressive perseverance (the first act is virtually a monologue), excavating as many laughs as possible from Toby’s middling, often coarse witticisms. (Would anyone who really knew George Balanchine, a famously generous and gentle artist, refer to him as a “vituperative little fuck”?) But for all Langella’s energetic striving, Toby remains a dusty archetype, the flamboyant gay man d’un certain age, as he himself might put it.
Except that Toby happens to be bisexual. References to a wife, and to dalliances with various other women in the heady days of his youth, provide neon pointers for those few in the audience still wondering what the playwright is up to. The truly obtuse might glean further hints from Mike’s behavior. As Lisa begins her interview, he perches silently on the furniture, staring malevolently into space like a refugee from a Pinter play. But soon he’s joining the interrogation, making obsessive, increasingly hostile references to a certain woman Toby once knew intimately, in a certain year and even a certain month.
Yes, in its essentials, “Match” is “Mamma Mia!” with the jukebox unplugged. In the place of a sweet young British girl wondering who her daddy was, we have an angry, homophobic cop wondering who his daddy was. And while there is certainly potential for drama in this emotionally fraught situation, Belber perversely forestalls it, almost indefinitely.
The first act is a long, not particularly interesting minuet of veiled accusation and avoidance, as Toby clings to ignorance well past the point of audience exasperation. Act two is even more devoid of dramatic matter, as Toby and Lisa, played with admirable delicacy by Adams, slowly establish friendly relations while Mike goes in search of a DNA lab.
Belber is certainly skilled at writing fluid, natural dialogue, but his characters prove a little too watery. Toby’s heartfelt admissions in the second act render most of his behavior in the first nonsensical. And Mike, who spews forth references to “faggots, dykes and fairies” throughout the play’s first two hours, informs us in the sentimental final moments that such bigotry is “not my style. I like gay people.” The play reaches its nadir in this regard — and some others, too — in a truly bizarre passage in which Toby wistfully implores his probable daughter-in-law to let him perform cunnilingus. It seems Lisa hasn’t gotten much lately, and Toby is a firm believer in the adage about charity beginning at home.
Indeed, “Match” is the kind of play that relies on profoundly implausible behavior for its moment-to-moment continuance. It’s as unconvincing in its overarching emotional structure as it is in some of its smaller details (when, for instance, was the last time you saw moo goo gai pan on a takeout menu?). And while director Nicholas Martin and his capable cast imbue it with regular bursts of spontaneity, they cannot obscure the nagging sense that if anyone onstage were to lapse, even momentarily, into reasonable behavior — which is to say credibly human behavior — the play would come to an abrupt end.