The pleasure of watching Patrick Stewart navigate his first juicy gay character since “Jeffrey” propels Stephen Belber’s otherwise play-it-straight “Match,” a film with just enough upscale appeal to support a small arthouse run, but not enough personality to distinguish it in a crowded indie marketplace. For his second feature (after “Management”), Belber has turned to the 2005 play that originally launched his career on Broadway, where Frank Langella originated the role of a New York classical dance choreographer pulled into a fairly routine pas de trois when a young married couple drops by looking to expose secrets from his past.
Shooting in elegant widescreen, but making only a minimal effort to open up the experience beyond the Gotham apartment that encompasses the play, Belber begins with Stewart in his dance studio, where he makes stern yet supportive remarks about his young students. Stewart plays Tobias Powell — “Tobi” to friends — a celebrated terper-turned-instructor who’s not quite a curmudgeon, but obviously a loner, preferring to spend his spare time knitting at home alone.
Such is the late bachelorhood of a man who elected to pursue his career rather than settling down with a partner earlier in life. Tobi certainly had his choice of candidates back in the swinging heyday of the New York dance scene, when he played the field with men and women alike. Those are the stories Lisa (Carla Gugino) and her visually uncomfortable husband Mike (Matthew Lillard) want to hear about when they arrange to interview Tobi at a neighborhood diner not far from home — another modest change of scenery that only barely broadens the play’s claustrophobic world, but makes the tight 15-day shoot possible.
The conversation eventually drifts back to Tobi’s place, where liquor and pot serve to lubricate the uneasy dynamic. In theater, such tension inevitably serves as foreplay for the emotional explosion to come, though onscreen, where audiences have been conditioned to expect mini-climaxes with each scene, a film so cleanly broken into two acts feels awkward and underdeveloped. What plays as subtext onstage sits naked and uncomfortable on the surface the instant the couple’s true agenda emerges.
In effect, Belber has supplied fresh music (a lovely score by “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” composer Stephen Trask), but upset the dance: Cues that had previously been delivered via body language and blocking are now communicated via closeups and facial expressions — a level of intimacy that makes Tobi’s refusal to answer the couple’s potentially inappropriate questions seem like little more than stalling. Generally speaking, in theater, the pressure builds in the room; onscreen, it often serves to propel the action forward. Here, there’s no real action to speak of, no urgency, just three characters talking in circles.
As such, the result is only as strong as its cast, which is where Belber’s writing excels — that is, in snaring such a compelling leading man. Even if Stewart were merely reading oral histories from the New York dance community, the experience would be gripping, but here, he’s handed a piece of material that plunges deep into such a character’s personal life — the specifics of which would spoil “Match’s” most satisfying surprises. Suffice it to say, the themes that emerge are universal in nature, concerning the most fundamental of life choices and the consequences such decisions manifest down the road.
In the film, Belber resolves a mystery left ambiguous at the end of the play, which makes for a more satisfying conclusion while still leaving many provocative questions for audiences to work out on the drive home afterwards. Without sacrificing the piece‘s warm comic undertones, this minimally adapted theatrical piece remains richer and far more thought-provoking than a typical night at the movies — if only the entire cast were as strong as Stewart. The gap in talent occasionally (and inadvertently) calls back to that early scene in Tobi’s studio, where insecure students come up after rehearsal seeking the maestro’s approval.
It’s easy to imagine that same dynamic occurring off-camera after a tricky scene in which Tobi teaches Lisa a breathing exercise that should allow her to identify and release her various marital complaints. Belber fully trusts Gugino with this demanding bit of self-revelation, but her catharsis simply doesn’t register. With Stewart, one senses the character’s history in every gesture — his past, like the jar of fingernail clippings he keeps stashed in plain view, is plainly apparent at all times. Not so with his co-stars, who never quite transcend the types they represent. While the material naturally favors the older role, Lillard and Gugino simply are no match, and not just in the sense the title implies.