Frank Langella is a playwright's best friend.
Consider the fine work he does in "Match," Stephen Belber's fitful three-character play at Broadway's Plymouth Theatre.
The actor portrays Tobi Powell, an aging ballet choreographer, who has settled into a comfortable existence teaching dance in New York after a long career working in Europe.
As the curtain rises, Langella has some choice minutes alone on stage before the play's two other characters, a mysterious husband and wife, arrive to grill Tobi about the American dance scene in the late 1950s.
Not many actors can get a big laugh with just a bag of chips but Langella does - twice. As he busily primps and putters around designer James Noone's cluttered apartment setting, the actor already has won over the audience.
Indeed, Langella lifts the whole first act, giving "Match" a momentum that doesn't stall until after intermission. The actor embraces Tobi's free spirit, reveling in the man's good-natured flamboyance, an outrageousness that disarms and then charms.
"I love my life," says the character, and you believe him because of Langella's artful performance.
The couple, played by Ray Liotta and Jane Adams, introduce some tension into the meandering plot. The wife, Lisa, claims to be working on a dissertation but her questions - with a few interjections from her belligerent helpmate -gradually grow more personal.
Eventually, it's revealed that Lisa and her husband, Mike, are trying to find Mike's father, a man his mother never identified. Could it be Tobi?
On that question the drama hangs -and then falters. Belber is adept at writing crackling conversation, but his plot never quite comes together, even though he hurriedly tries to tie up loose ends by the final curtain - insofar as the play feels unfinished.
Another draft or two may be needed to iron out the clunky dramatics that mar the play's second act. Among the moments to excise: an discussion of oral sex that seems to have been included solely to suggest that Tobi was equally at home sleeping with men and women.
Belber was one of the writers and actors who helped put together "The Laramie Project," the Tetonic Theater Project's moving docudrama -- about the death of Matthew Shepard.
"Match" has surface similarities to Belber's best-known play, "Tape," which the playwright also adapted for a screen version which starred Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Robert Sean Leonard. It, too, is a three-character drama in which a character seeks to discover the truth about the past.
Adams is sweetly appealing as the reluctant interrogator. Liotta has a harder time because his character, a gruff Seattle policeman with "issues," is not as well drawn.
Director Nicholas Martin keeps the show moving at a reasonable clip, even when the story starts to fall part.
But there is always Langella to savor. He's the man who makes "Match" occasionally strike theatrical fire.
How often does an actor finds a perfect role not once but twice in a Broadway career?
Frank Langella had a dream role 27 years ago in "Dracula," when he dominated the stage though he appeared on it for only 17 minutes.
There are no such restrictions for his performance as Tobi Powell in Stephen Belber's captivating "Match," a three-character play that also features stellar work by Ray Liotta and Jane Adams.
"Match" is uproariously funny, enthralling theater.
Here Langella is onstage throughout the play, which might have been a liability. Over such a stretch of time a lesser actor might reduce Tobi, a once-great dancer who now teaches at Juilliard, to a single note - a silly old queen.
But even at the start, when that is the impression the play intends us to receive, Langella exhibits a level of anxiety and vulnerability that suggests something darker below the giddy surface.
Belber's script abounds in wit. There is a particularly delectable moment in the second act when Tobi, defending dancers against prejudice, says, "That's a lot of pressure to put on people who have enough trouble counting to eight."
But "Match" has more serious concerns.
Liotta and Adams play a young couple ostensibly interviewing Tobi about his early career. It would be unfair to disclose their actual purpose here. Suffice it to say that Belber tells his story with great canniness. The ending, which might have been kitschy in less accomplished hands, is deeply touching.
There is an especially unsettling second act scene with Tobi and the young woman. Its verbal sexual explicitness would not work unless Langella had given Tobi some emotional heft.
The scene appears to be leading toward something extremely uncomfortable. Instead, to the credit of Berber, Langella and Adams, its climax is a moment of great beauty and tenderness.
Liotta, who plays a severely repressed Seattle policeman, does so with tremendous restraint. This is his Broadway debut, but his stage chops are impressive.
Adams, who won a Tony for "An Inspector Calls," is perfect as his troubled wife. Like Liotta, her seriousness underlines the script's savvy comedy.
James Noone's set for a cluttered apartment has its own comic poetry. As always, Brian Macdevitt's lighting heightens every mood. Michael Krass' costumes are subtle, except for the sweaters he designed to show Tobi's obsessive knitting.
Director Nicholas Martin keeps the play's widely veering tones in complete balance.
When the valiant Frank Langella, forced to overact a storm, can still leave a play lying flat and dull on the stage, that play is in trouble.
The stage was that of the Plymouth Theatre and the play was Stephen Belber's "Match," which was scarcely born in heaven and had the temerity to open last night.
The story is annoyingly simple. Tobi (Langella) is a 61-year-old choreographer residing in Upper Manhattan, whose reputation, unfortunately, resides chiefly in Europe. He now teaches classical ballet at Juilliard.
We first encounter him in his cluttered one-bedroom apartment, knitting. Obviously awaiting guests, he fiddles with wine and chips, then clips his fingernails with relish, popping the clippings into a large receptacle obviously maintained for that purpose.
At last the bell rings, not a moment too soon, announcing the arrival of Mike (Ray Liotta) and his wife Lisa (Jane Adams) from Seattle. Lisa is apparently researching a dissertation on American dance history.
Tobi, surprised and flattered to find himself included in such a project, flutters around like a hummingbird in heat. He is so busily limp-wristed one fears his hands might fly off at the next gestural extravagance.
It is soon clear that Lisa, and more especially Mike - who turns out to be a cop, but no master at interrogation - are particularly fascinated by the sexual antics of the dance community around 1959.
That was precisely the time when Tobi, after being the toast of New York City with George Balanchine, suddenly left to make his career with Alicia Alonso in Cuba. (A strange career move, perhaps, but it's not my play.)
Now comes the big surprise: It seems that Tobi is or was a practicing bisexual, and Mike is soon homing in on whether he was practicing in his relationship with one particular dancer, a Gloria Rinaldi.
Did he or didn't he? Were they or weren't they? Is Mike's last name really Davis? And will Tobi take a DNA test (and here you see the significance of the play's title)?
It's not for me to reveal the outcome of what is the entire, extraordinarily slender subject matter of the play.
What I can tell you is that it is remarkably clumsily written, with dialogue as unrealistic as the characters are unbelievable.
Director Nicholas Martin is something of a specialist in extravagance, but the play exceeds even the bounds of his specialty, and while James Noone's setting is authentically jumbled and shabbv, the actors are at a loss for any such credibility.
Liotta, in his Broadway debut, is sullen, broody and charmless as the sullen, broody and charmless Mike, while Adams consistently shows a surprising grace in the difficult role of Lisa.
As for Langella . . . perhaps a little less might have paid off a little more, but faced with the always uphill task of briefly galvanizing the stubbornly inert, his relentless overactivity could almost be commended.
"Match" is a pretty bad play. Were it a game of tennis you might score it as: Six, Love; Six, Love; Six, Love; Game, Set and, yes, Match!
Now this is what it means to work a room. In the opening moments of ''Match,'' the slim and soggy new comedy by Stephen Belber that opened last night at the Plymouth Theater, Frank Langella is utterly alone onstage. This is appropriate, since aloneness is a dominant shade in Mr. Langella's portrait of his character, an aging choreographer and dance teacher named Tobi Powell. But though there's not another soul in Tobi's apartment, he fills the space with the social energy of Le Cirque 2000 during a weekday lunch hour.
Whether curled catlike on his sofa while knitting what looks like an epic scarf-in-the-making, rushing from kitchen to living room with bowls of stale snack foods or pensively clipping his nails, Tobi somehow radiates the rabid conviviality of a man born to schmooze. And that's before the guests he's waiting for have even arrived. What's he going to be like when he has real people to play to?
By the time the play's two other cast members, Ray Liotta and Jane Adams, finally make their entrance, Mr. Langella has created a juicy, overripe character study that has the audience in the palms of Tobi's fluttering hands. Tobi is a fop of a very different order from the posturing, provincial Russian nobleman Mr. Langella portrayed (and won a Tony for) in Turgenev's ''Fortune's Fool'' two years ago. But for the show's first half-hour, he exhales the same breath of authenticity.
A convincingly contradictory mix of small-town American folksiness and aesthetic worldliness, Mr. Langella makes you feel, as only a fine actor can, that his character is both deeply familiar and original. You're ready to follow this manic, hopeful, charming and pathetic creature wherever he wants to take you. Wherever, in this case, turns out to be a narrow cul-de-sac. And it's a tribute to Mr. Langella's electricity and resourcefulness that you keep praying that Mr. Belber's schematic, soft-centered script will take some radical turn and surprise you.
As it is, this story of a solitary man forced to confront a long-buried secret is an itchy tease of a play that never truly delivers. It feels much too appropriate when it is revealed that none of the three characters have had sex in a long, long time. Though Mr. Langella, his co-stars and their light-handed director, Nicholas Martin, do their best to make you think otherwise, ''Match'' is all foreplay and no follow-through.
If it seems I'm being annoyingly elusive, that's because ''Match'' is set up as a mystery of sorts. And the play's hook into its audience is tenuous enough without my giving things away. Initially, it looks as if ''Match'' might be one of those satisfying old-fashioned puzzle plays, like ''Deathtrap'' or ''Sleuth,'' in which mutual deception and power shifts among a compact cast of characters keep an audience in comfortable suspense for a couple of hours.
Mike and Lisa Davis (Mr. Liotta and Ms. Adams), a homey-looking couple from Seattle, have come to New York specifically to interview Tobi in his apartment in the Inwood section of Manhattan, way, way uptown. (James Noone's shabby, cluttered set is a choice example of décor as character definition.)
Their pretext is that Lisa is researching a book about ''the history of classical dance choreography.'' Though Tobi, now a teacher at Juilliard, is glad of the company, he isn't quite sure where he fits in, since he has lived much of his adult life abroad, and most of his work has been for opera, a form in which dance is secondary.
He's right to be suspicious. That these visitors are not what they seem is all too evident in Mike's combustible discomfort and Lisa's anxiety as her husband veers toward explosion. The air is charged -- well, on a very low current -- with sexual tension and suppressed violence. And as the couple's questions become more and more personal, Tobi is compelled to insist that they shut off that darn tape recorder and explain what they're really up to.
Mr. Belber has been this way before. His best-known previous play is called ''Tape.'' (It was made into a well-received movie by Richard Linklater three years ago starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Robert Sean Leonard.) It, too, is a monosyllabically titled three-character work in which a tape recorder is used to explore secrets and lies from the past.
But while ''Tape,'' according to most descriptions, had some of that sharp, corrosive nastiness that passes for cool, ''Match'' is warm-hearted and forgiving. These are virtuous traits, and they are appealingly manifested in Mr. Belber's obvious affection for Tobi and, to a lesser extent, the Davises. But this same sweetness is applied with machinery-jamming stickiness to the reversals of plot. Call me cynical, but my heart sank when it became clear that ''Match'' was going to abandon the sinister for the sentimental, substituting coziness for complexity of character.
Mr. Liotta, a compelling surly bad boy in films like ''Goodfellas'' and ''Something Wild,'' doesn't have much to work with for his Broadway debut. Mike, who is absent for much of the second act, is most notable for being ill at ease, a trait that Mr. Liotta has no difficulty in conveying here. Ms. Adams, who can be seen on screen in the current ''Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,'' has a wonderful gift for anxiously and spontaneously twisting a line.
Her low-key quirkiness as Lisa nicely sets off Tobi's florid eccentricities. And she and Mr. Langella are so good at conveying loneliness, in their different but complementary styles, that they almost justify an outrageously prurient scene in which Tobi makes gentle but very explicit sexual overtures to Lisa. (Oops, I've just given away one of the show's secrets: Tobi isn't just the old queen he's accused of being.)
As for Mr. Langella, he makes Tobi such a vital and ingratiating presence that he keeps you hoping he'll be allowed to take his character into less conventional territory. A compulsive chatterer, Tobi tends to smooth over social awkwardness and gaping silences with feverishly told, amusing ancedotes.
He invests such energy in these stories that whether they're really funny or not, you do your best to believe they are. That sense of a vivacious host keeping a dying cocktail party alive is not unlike Mr. Langella's relation to ''Match.'' Despite his unflagging inventiveness, the party is long over before the play ends.
The commercial theater needs a bit of Stephen Belber, the downtown playwright who made his Broadway debut at the Plymouth Theatre April 8 with "Match," an improbable but nimble little feel-good suspense sitcom. And "Match" needs a lot of Frank Langella.
So do we. Langella, no longer the matinee idol of "Dracula," has whipped up a huge, generous, deeply amusing character who, under less sensitive skin, could easily be a primer of gay cliches. This is Tobi, an aging choreographer and Juilliard dance teacher who allows a couple from Seattle into his worn, comfortably eccentric walkup in too-far-Upper Manhattan. The pretext is that Lisa, inhabited with endearing gawkiness by Jane Adams, wants to interview Tobi for her dissertation. She brings along her tightly wound husband, Mike, played with an appropriate lack of affect by Ray Liotta in his Broadway debut.
Like Belber's "Tape," the Off-Broadway hit that Richard Linklater turned into an indie film, "Match" updates the sort of affordable, single-set, three- actor commodity that used to keep Broadway and the road in business. This serious comedy has a solid construction, telegraphed plot twists with a secret sexual history, plenty of raunch- talk and almost enough plugged- in cleverness to excuse the sentimental spasm that precedes its ambiguous finale.
It also has a big heart and an even bigger past for a character actor who communicates unspoken dignity while enjoying the flaming pleasures of hyperarticulate flamboyance. Acutely directed by Nicholas Martin, the opening minutes are their own silent dance. Tobi is settled into his sofa, nesting in an apartment festooned (thanks to designer James Noone) with vivid bits of a long, fairly anonymous career. He puts down his knitting. He drags contentedly on a cigarette, one elbow resting, ... la diva, on the other forearm. He stretches with the feline consciousness of a soft, comfy body that still knows how to move.
He plans to entertain strangers in his old khaki Bermuda shorts, sweat socks and lived-in red shirt, chosen as a personality statement by designer Michael Krass. Langella turns the presentation of chips for Tobi's visitors into a rhapsody of selection and rejection. He fluffs up a bowl of Chex as if they were posies. Then he carefully snips off one of his fingernails and puts it into a vase with hundreds of others.
Yes, this is a weird man, but also a dear one. Flattered by the visitors' interest in his life, he blurts anecdotes as if they were as fabulous as his verbiage, peppered with profanities and caressed by the breeze of flapping wrists. He asks his guests their feelings about the "quaint eccentricities of marijuana" before offering Danish hashish. For all his offhand shockers about "backstabbing dancer sex" and the years he "was the talk of the dance in that part of town that talks about dance," we begin to understand his ability to use candor as a disguise.
Eventually, Tobi realizes he has been "ambushed" for another purpose. Lisa is there to help Mike, a cop with major anger issues, interrogate their host about something that might have happened long ago.
For much of the evening, Liotta's Mike is playing genuine and narrative straight man, reacting to Tobi's exultations and Lisa's awkward support. He has a grand face for keeping a straight face. He looks and moves like a cop, at least the ones we like on TV. Even a seasoned stage actor, however, might get whiplash when Mike makes a ludicrously abrupt turn in the second act. We're impressed that Liotta manages to change without breaking his spine.
Belber, a member of Off- Broadway's Tectonic Theater Project and co-author of its "Laramie Project," also has written for "Law & Order: SVU." He knows his way around several territories. Although he shows off a lot of inside detail about the dance world, every so often, he oversteps. How did Tobi, an American dancer, join the Cuban ballet in 1959 and stay for five years? What about the revolution? And we believe him when he says Martha Graham and George Balanchine paved the way for "Merce and Jose" (Cunningham and Limon.) But Pina Bausch? We think not.
Then, too, even if Mike could break down the door of a big, old New York building, Tobi would never go to a diner without being able to close the door, much less lock it. He's not the one from Seattle.
One of last year's less stellar Broadway entries, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, focused on a flamboyant dance teacher who forms an unlikely bond with a strait-laced stranger.
In Stephen Belber's Match (*** ½ out of four), which opened Thursday at the Plymouth Theatre, the premise is similar. But thanks to a better script and superior cast, the results are vastly different.
The plot concerns a married couple, Mike and Lisa Davis, who arrive one afternoon at the Upper Manhattan apartment of Tobi Powell, an accomplished choreographer whose eccentric nature is established in a droll, wordless opening sequence. Lisa is ostensibly there to interview Tobi for her dissertation, with Mike on hand for technical support.
But we soon learn that the visitors have a very different agenda. The breezy comic tone established while Tobi is regaling them with his colorful exploits is upset by a disturbing revelation, and, for a moment, the play threatens to make a U-turn into maudlin terrain.
Luckily, Belber possesses the dramatic intuition and wit necessary to ensure that Match never devolves into TV-movie-like muck. If the twists are seldom shocking, the less patently pivotal moments are credible and forceful, and we never lose interest in these characters or their sometimes-confused motives.
It helps that the most prominent character is played by Frank Langella in what is sure to be one of the most memorable performances of a distinguished career. In less capable hands, Tobi, a wisecracking bi-sexual with a haunted past, might have entered as a showbiz caricature and exited in a puddle of pathos. But Langella makes him fully, exquisitely human, imbuing the role with dignity and poignancy without sacrificing a shred of its tart, quip-happy glory.
As Mike, Ray Liotta spends less time on stage than his billing might suggest, but he lends the part a rugged, subtly repressed quality that makes his rage and vulnerability convincing. Jane Adams' wary, soft-spoken Lisa is more quietly affecting, particularly in a moving scene in which she and Tobi, left alone together, reveal some of the demons they hide from Mike.
It isn't surprising that these co-stars, both noted actors themselves, never overplay their hands. Match is Langella's party, and if there's a more marvelous host treading the boards right now, I've yet to meet him.
Can you imagine trying to knit a sweater with no yarn? An analogous process is taking place nightly at the Plymouth Theater, as Frank Langella valiantly attempts to conjure an evening's entertainment from the wispy fibers of Stephen Belber's "Match." Playing a former ballet dancer with a secret in his past, Langella does everything but grand jete into the audience's lap in his efforts to levitate this stubbornly earthbound, protracted and seriously contrived new play.
Langella's Toby Powell is, in fact, knitting as the curtain rises on his comfortably cluttered apartment, colorfully rendered by designer James Noone, who evinces an attention to detail that easily outstrips the playwright's. Toby soon puts aside the scarf to prepare for visitors, and Langella turns this dithering into a funny little dance of domestic absurdity, whisking away a bowl of stale Doritos and nervously primping their replacement, a pile of Chex.
His guests turn out to be a willowy young woman, Lisa (Jane Adams), and her taciturn husband, Mike (Ray Liotta). She's working on a dissertation about "dance and the history of classical dance choreography in this country, and the question as to in what sense does that genre fit into the future arts scene here." That garbled, vague proposal might have clued Toby in to a darker purpose at hand, as might the unnecessary, somewhat menacing presence of Mike.
But Toby sees nothing amiss and happily regales the kids with tales of his peripatetic career as a dancer and teacher, which took him from small-town Maine to such exotic locales as Cuba and Geneva. Arms fluttering like windmills, eyes rolling skyward during Toby's bursts of camp, or Mike's occasional glowering rejoinder, Langella hyperventilates his way through Toby's windy reminiscences with impressive perseverance (the first act is virtually a monologue), excavating as many laughs as possible from Toby's middling, often coarse witticisms. (Would anyone who really knew George Balanchine, a famously generous and gentle artist, refer to him as a "vituperative little fuck"?) But for all Langella's energetic striving, Toby remains a dusty archetype, the flamboyant gay man d'un certain age, as he himself might put it.
Except that Toby happens to be bisexual. References to a wife, and to dalliances with various other women in the heady days of his youth, provide neon pointers for those few in the audience still wondering what the playwright is up to. The truly obtuse might glean further hints from Mike's behavior. As Lisa begins her interview, he perches silently on the furniture, staring malevolently into space like a refugee from a Pinter play. But soon he's joining the interrogation, making obsessive, increasingly hostile references to a certain woman Toby once knew intimately, in a certain year and even a certain month.
Yes, in its essentials, "Match" is "Mamma Mia!" with the jukebox unplugged. In the place of a sweet young British girl wondering who her daddy was, we have an angry, homophobic cop wondering who his daddy was. And while there is certainly potential for drama in this emotionally fraught situation, Belber perversely forestalls it, almost indefinitely.
The first act is a long, not particularly interesting minuet of veiled accusation and avoidance, as Toby clings to ignorance well past the point of audience exasperation. Act two is even more devoid of dramatic matter, as Toby and Lisa, played with admirable delicacy by Adams, slowly establish friendly relations while Mike goes in search of a DNA lab.
Belber is certainly skilled at writing fluid, natural dialogue, but his characters prove a little too watery. Toby's heartfelt admissions in the second act render most of his behavior in the first nonsensical. And Mike, who spews forth references to "faggots, dykes and fairies" throughout the play's first two hours, informs us in the sentimental final moments that such bigotry is "not my style. I like gay people." The play reaches its nadir in this regard -- and some others, too -- in a truly bizarre passage in which Toby wistfully implores his probable daughter-in-law to let him perform cunnilingus. It seems Lisa hasn't gotten much lately, and Toby is a firm believer in the adage about charity beginning at home.
Indeed, "Match" is the kind of play that relies on profoundly implausible behavior for its moment-to-moment continuance. It's as unconvincing in its overarching emotional structure as it is in some of its smaller details (when, for instance, was the last time you saw moo goo gai pan on a takeout menu?). And while director Nicholas Martin and his capable cast imbue it with regular bursts of spontaneity, they cannot obscure the nagging sense that if anyone onstage were to lapse, even momentarily, into reasonable behavior -- which is to say credibly human behavior -- the play would come to an abrupt end.