‘Match’: Patrick Stewart leads a powerful trio of actors

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Having seen writer and director Stephen Belber’s play “Match” on Broadway a number of years ago, I was curious how he would translate his stage production — which was nominated for a Tony Award in 2004 — as he brought it to the big screen.

Happily, Belber’s film, which he directed based on the screenplay he penned of his theatrical script, does not dilute what he achieved earlier in the play, which starred Frank Langella in the role of Tobi, the eccentric bisexual former dancer turned teacher and choreographer.

In the film version, Patrick Stewart tackles with just the right amount of quirky mannerisms the part of Tobi and delivers a performance that is quite the tour-de-force. He does it unlike Langella did on stage, but with a similar if less bombastic degree of intensity.

We are introduced to Tobi as he runs his dance students through a typical rehearsal/workout and then find him quietly sitting in a Brooklyn neighborhood diner in New York — clearly a place where he long has been a regular.

Soon a young couple arrive: Lisa and Mike (played by Carla Gugino and Matthew Lillard). Initially, we are made to think Lisa is there to interview Tobi for a doctoral thesis she is writing about the world of dance and ballet in New York during Tobi’s heyday.

Sucked into an ego-inflating interview, the former dancer quickly is preening and bragging and emoting about his illustrious career and accomplishments. At this point, Stewart is grotesquely engrossing, as we watch him expound on how great he was in his youth.

Soon, Tobi has whisked Lisa and Mike (who seems to be there merely to grudgingly record his wife’s interview) back to his modest apartment. Along with showing off his dance memorabilia, examples of his knitting talent and even his weird collection of nail clippings in a glass jar, Tobi is then off on a number of tangents — including his confessions about his wild and promiscuous sex life in his youth.

It is at that point — prodded by Lisa’s probing questions about Tobi’s proclivities in the 1960s and ’70s — that both Tobi and the audience come to understand the true nature of Lisa and Mike’s “interview.” I won’t reveal the twist, but trust me when I say the revelations that come in the film’s second half take us on a journey very different from the one we likely anticipated at the beginning.

This small film (virtually all of it filmed in Tobi’s New York apartment) is a real gem. Stewart is the main draw and he doesn’t disappoint one bit. Gugino delivers a richly layered performance, tricky as the part calls for supreme subtlety.

Lillard is a major revelation here. While we are familiar with his previous dramatic work, it is his comedies that have mostly defined the “Scream” and “Scooby-Doo” star for most audiences. Yet here, the brooding quality — and ultimately the open rage — he brings to the character of Mike is tremendous.

Thanks to this talented trio of actors, “Match” is a terrific little film that delivers a very powerful, poignant and haunting message.

[s3r star=3.5/4]

IFC Films presents a film written and directed by Stephen Belber. Running time: 92 minutes. Rated R (for language, sexual dialogue and some drug use). Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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