It’s always tough for filmmakers to figure out how to adapt a single-set play to cinema with such myriad possibilities for “opening up” a stage show. Writer-director Stephen Belber solved the dilemma for his own 2004 Tony Award-nominated play, “Match,” in the simplest imaginable way: He did nothing.
Oh sure, he inserts a scene in a dance studio and a few others on the street, in cabs and a cafe that feel natural to the flow of the story. But otherwise he clings to the intensity theater delivers along with the intimacy a camera affords.
“Match,” which stars Patrick Stewart, Carla Gugino and Matthew Lillard, emerges as a small-scale film that in its theatrical release will please older adults who enjoy a solid, well-made drama. The film should enjoy a much wider audience when IFC Films, which helped make and distribute the movie, gets it on cable.
“Match” remains a three-hander about an aging ballet professor who welcomes a younger Seattle couple into his surprisingly spacious Manhattan apartment for what he believes to be an interview about the early days in his career. Soon enough it becomes clear these two have ulterior motives.
Stewart, of course, is the star and gets a showy role, that of the dance instructor, a stern though benevolent task master with his very-young students. He carries an aura of hard-earned wisdom about the dance studio. You sense though that he has reluctantly abandoned earlier, wilder days of hedonistic excess and creative passion.
As the story progresses you learn Stewart’s Tobi Powell, once a bisexual debaucher reveling in his priapic athleticism amid a crowded community of fellow dancers, then settled into a more focused gay life that eventually gave way to welcome solitude and a late-blooming enthusiasm for knitting.
However, in researching her Ph.D. thesis, Lisa (Gugino) seems unduly interested in those early days of profligate sexuality. Initially delighted to relive past erotic glories, Tobi soon detects this interest is disingenuous.
Instead Lisa’s “dissertation” proves a ruse to tease out of him facts surrounding a sexual liaison long ago that may have produced a son. In fact, that son may be the man standing right in front of him, Lisa’s husband Mike (Lillard).
Throughout the early stages of this interview, Mike has been a sullen bystander, a man who admits to having no empathy for the arts and especially ballet which is entirely too queer for this macho police officer.
Once the cat is out of the bag, Mike fairly explodes with pent-up rage and pain over a lifetime of denial by this man he is more than certain is his biological father. The intensity ratchets up several notches as Mike insists that Tobi take a paternity test and when this is refused becomes intent on forcibly taking a DNA sample.
There’s plenty of dramatic fireworks among this trio, with Lisa more and more trying to protect the old man against her husband’s rage. But in between all this comes a meditation on the meaning of fatherhood and the responsibilities — and irresponsibilities — of many men, ruled by their ambitions, in this regard.
Belber has given equal balance to the roles so there are shifts in allegiance among the trio as sympathies move in this direction and that until all points of view get heard. Stewart’s role is designed to dominate the story’s focus — Frank Langella played it on Broadway — but the other two actors get plenty of opportunities to expose their own flaws and vulnerabilities.
Stewart plays the early scenes with giddy enthusiasm and a little nervousness, almost as if no journalist has ever asked him to recount his life story. (Surely, that can’t be true.) This allows him to exhibit the passion and wit he brought to his former career before he blew out a knee and was forced into teaching. As the true nature of the interview becomes apparent, Stewart engineers a shift to guilty defensiveness and sad anger.
Lillard comes off initially as a blowhard, whose anger gets the better of him most of the time — dangerously so for cop — until the emotions and events of the day finally hit him.
Gugino, in the most difficult role, acts as referee, judge and jury between these two strong-minded men who often act like children. Yet her character has as much at stake in the outcome as the men. A woman expecting a brood of kids, Lisa has been left childless by a husband unwilling to assume a role missing from his own life.
Making his film directing debut, at times Belber has cinematographer Luke Geissbühler move his camera too close to his actors’ faces, making things more claustrophobic than need be. It doesn’t happen often enough to detract but the compositions are somewhat awkward.
Nevertheless by making the movie such a straightforward actors’ showcase, “Match” actually comes off as a refreshing change of pace for today’s moviegoer, a reminder of the virtues of plays transferred to film without added cinematic tricks.
One is able to concentrate on story and characters without the distracting frills with which directors feel they must entertain audiences. I guess that makes a neat one-word summery of “Match” — refreshing.
Opens: January 14, 2015 (IFC Films)
Production companies: Permut Presentations, Sentinel Pictures, Whitewater Films, Tilted Windmill Prods.
Cast: Patrick Stewart, Carla Gugino, Matthew Lillard
Director-screenwriter: Stephen Belber
Based on a play by: Stephen Belber
Producers: David Permut, Matt Ratner, Rick Rosenthal
Executive producers: David Beitchman, Adam Brawer, Chris Mangano, Nick Morton, Larry Kopeikin
Director of photography: Luke Geissbühler
Production designer: Chris Trujillo
Costume designer: Sarah Mae Burton
Editor: Madeleine Gavin
R rating, 92 minutes