It is clear by the 15-minute mark of Stephen Belber’s drama Match that the film we are watching had its roots on the stage. The camera is mostly stationary, framing its actors in tight close-ups, and the dialogue lingers on the idiosyncrasies of the characters rather than propelling the story forward. However, the biggest give-away is that Patrick Stewart flamboyantly spits his lines and enunciates each syllable, as if a large audience existed where the camera stands.
Like many plays confined to a couple of settings that eventually transition to the big screen, Match struggles to find a directorial style or mark that differentiates it from the theatre. It also fails to deliver a real purpose to exist in a new medium. (Unlike 12 Angry Men, still the best stage-to-screen adaptation, you often notice that most of the drama is confined to one location.) Fortunately for Belber, strong acting from the tight-knit ensemble impresses to the point that we sometimes forget we are watching filmed theater.
Match follows Tobias “Tobi” Powell, a dance instructor at Julliard whose gentle reminders of discipline make him a student favorite. Commanding in class yet flamboyant in person, Tobi is a terrific encapsulation of its main actor. (Stewart also shares his purring voice and keen smile with Frank Langella, who originated the role on the New York stage.) Despite his pedigree, Tobi would rather spend a weekend by himself in a cozy apartment than engage with colleagues out-of-town.
One afternoon, he goes to a diner near his home to meet with Lisa (Carla Gugino), a woman working on her dissertation about classical choreography. Accompanying Lisa is her taciturn husband, Mike (a restrained Matthew Lillard), a cop who audibly speaks of his ignorance for the arts. Tobi has a long history as a world-renowned dancer long before his tenure, so he delights Lisa and Mike with stories, all captured on Lisa’s tape recorder. “I was the talk of the town,” Tobi brags, “in the part of the town that talks about dance.”
Back at Tobi’s apartment, though, Mike leans in with curious questions about the sexually liberated 1960s and Tobi’s experiences with an assortment of women. The chance to recount his glory days tickles the dance teacher. As Mike’s tone becomes more confrontational, though, Tobi begins to doubt the motives of this younger couple. Lisa and Mike have confronted him to figure out whether Tobi is, in fact, Mike’s long-lost father. While this plot development threatens to oppress Belber’s film with melodrama, the playwright knows how to pace the drama between moments of deep stress and relief. The characters get time to breathe and space to figure out their complicated relationships.
Despite the fine work from the three actors, all of whom bring depth and nuance to underwritten characters, Belber falters by not quite knowing what to do with the camera. While screen adaptations have the advantage of exposing more about the characters through the use of close-up, many of them also stagnate the actors into individual shots. This tightened framing minimizes our knowledge of the space and also doesn’t allow us to see many of the actors’ reactions to the plot turns. When watching a stage play, we can choose where to direct our attention. When watching Belber’s film, we can only see what he shows us, limiting our knowledge of the characters’ varying feelings toward each other.
In a few choice moments, the camera recedes from this stodgy direction and glides along with the characters for a prolonged amount of time. In a tender moment between Tobi and Lisa in the film’s second half, the camera floats to the side as he leads her in a dance. The extended two-shot makes us feel the electricity and the simmering sexual tension in the room, something that the flat, overused over-the-shoulder angles from the rest of Match cannot boast.
Nevertheless, the film contains strong work from all three actors. Stewart is a powerhouse yet draws his emotions more subtly than his gleeful initial demeanor suggests. At a few moments, he sneaks too forcefully loud for a character not performing for an audience on the stage. His purry, powerful voice could belong to a man half his age. However, the more the gravity of the escalating plot sinks into Tobi, the more Stewart mines the sorrow and regret within the character, creating deep pathos. When the pace becomes more measured and the volume less shrill, we get to see inside Tobi’s soul.
Gugino, meanwhile, is superb in a role that should have been more than a portrait of a woman going through marital friction. Her eyes show the difficulty of her home life, as the subtext in her performance creates sympathy and texture where the text cannot. And while Lillard may be a bit too young for his role, one that Ray Liotta performed for the stage, he savors his meaty chunks of dialogue.
Match is a fine play with a perfunctory big-screen adaptation. Belber’s lack of creativity as a director mires the drama in scenes that feel too static, but strong performances save the project from its stylistic shortcomings.
Stephen Belber’s powerful stage drama Match transitions to the big screen with its fine acting intact, and thankfully, it's strong enough to overcome some clunky direction.