Match, Stephen Belber’s adaptation of his 2004 play, opens with dancer-turned-instructor Tobi Powell (Patrick Stewart) leading a Juilliard class with jovial, if not exactly uncritical, enthusiasm. “Arms loose! We’re not making pizza!” goes a typical bit of input, but he takes time after class to assure a student that she’s doing great. It’s easy to see why he’s a popular instructor, and popular in general. He even turns down an invitation to spend the weekend away with grace and good humor, leaving the impression that turning away invitations has become a habit. Age has turned him into a man of particular habits: the same restaurant, the same brand of scotch, the same blocks of time carved out to knit. Being alone has become second nature, even if this weekend he’s agreed to what he describes to the owner of his favorite diner as “a violation of my solitude.”
That violation comes in the form of a couple in town from Portland. Lisa (Carla Gugino) wants to record Tobi for her dissertation on “the history of classical choreography.” No fan of dance, her cop husband Mike (Matthew Lillard) is just along for the ride and to work the tape recorder. Once Tobi shakes off his initial nervousness, he’s happy to talk and talk, seemingly unaware that Lisa and eventually Mike have started to narrow the conversation down to a particular chapter in his history: a period in the late 1960s when he was part of a sexually adventurous community of dancers. They want details that extend well beyond the scope of what a dissertation might reasonably cover. And the way Tobi starts demurring about those details once he senses the couple isn’t there for the reasons they claim (see The Reveal for more) makes Mike angrier by the minute.
If this combination of name and subject matter sounds familiar, there’s a good reason: Belber also provided the source material for Richard Linklater’s Tape, another movie about three people in a room with a tape recorder looking for the truth about the past. Match begins in smiles, but soon becomes a three-way power struggle as Mike and Lisa move the conversation to Tobi’s apartment. Belber manages the shifting dynamics of the first act well. Tobi’s canniness allows him to control the situation even when he realizes he’s outnumbered—at least up to a point. But the film’s middle section, which leaves Lisa alone with Tobi, provides the best moments, as the two characters begin an uncomfortable conversation about their lives, what’s missing from them, and whether they’ll ever get them back. Where Tape gets progressively grimmer, Match benefits from pushing its characters into unknown territory.
They’re well, played, too. Lillard, on the heels of The Descendants, again shows he’s aged nicely into playing sad, middle-aged characters, and Gugino gets a chance to reveal the depths of disappointment behind her character’s easy smile. It’s Stewart’s show, however. Frank Langella originated the role of Tobi to much acclaim in Match’s initial run, but Stewart claims the part as his own. He’s charming by nature, then by design, as charm becomes a defensive weapon. And when those defenses break down, he lets loose a lifetime of experience, and with it a mix of joy and regret that’s tipped in the direction of the latter as he’s gotten older.
Tape contains nothing so memorable, but Match still ends up running into some of the same troubles as its predecessor. Belber makes a few attempts to open up the piece, most notably a trip to the roof that sets the action off against the New York skyline. Yet despite the sharp dialogue—“I was the talk of the town… in the part of the town that talks about dance,” Tobi recalls at one point—and carefully managed dramatic rhythms, Match still can’t help but seem a bit cramped, particularly once the plot starts to take some predictable turns and the shouting starts. It’s a fine line that divides the intimate from the claustrophobic.