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A CurtainUp Review


South Side Cafe in the Theater District

I love my life. . .I regret my life
Frank Langella
Frank Langella
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Playwright Stephen Belber's analogy of knitting as a satisfying alternative to physical intimacy would have been an interesting note to add to the introduction for a book I once did on creative knitting. So would the sweaters that Tobi, his pivotal character trots out.

The only actual knitting Frank Langella does in Belber's first Broadway play Match is a long scarf, and that only briefly, so I can't tell you if he has added needlework skills to his distinguished resume. What I can tell you is that that he zestfully and skillfully chews James Noone's scenery -- a marvelously overdecorated, book filled apartment in northernmost Manhattan, gorgeously sunlit by Brian Macdevitt. And he does so with even more than his usual panache.

Like Belber's best known play, Tape (see link at end), this is a three-hander that involves the use of a tape recorder and deception to get at the truth about the past -- in this instance a past going back forty years The playwright's knack for comic dialogue and Langella's spectacular performance, well supported by Jane Adams and film actor Ray Liotta, keep you engaged and willing to overlook the artificial setup and swallow the incredible character shifts.

The plot hinges on a situation driven by a is he or isn't he? and will he or won't he admit it? and where do we go from here? mystery. I'll therefore refrain from giving too many details even though the big buried secret isn't all that much of a surprise and the intentionally ambiguous ending is quite transparent. Suffice it to say that Tobi is a sixty-two-year-old former dancer and choreographer who, after a long and distinguished career abroad is now ensconced in a cozy walkup in the remote Inwood section of Manhattan which is all he can afford on his salary as a Juilliard dance teacher. As the play begins he's preparing for visitors who turn out to be a Seattle couple: Lisa (Jane Adams) is a graduate student who has asked to interview him for her dissertation on dance; her handsome but sullen husband Mike (Ray Liotta) is ostensibly along to see that her tape recorder is functioning but ends up being an aggressive co-interviewer.

The preparations for the visitors and the interview add up to a forty-five minute solo show for Langella, with Adams and Liotta his straight men. Under Nicholas Martin's directions the initial non-verbal opening is a hilarious dance that establishes the actor as a grand Diva even though he's wearing socks and baggy shorts.

It's a hoot to listen to what amounts to Belber's best dialogue and to watch Langella flutter and flounce around. Our admiration grows as we see him use every cliche in the flamboyantly gay man's lexicon of gestures without reducing Tobi to a carricature.

By the time the curtain rings down on the first act we know that Lisa and Mike have gained access to Toby's home and confidence under false pretenses and that being a homosexual has not prevented Tobi from having affairs with women -- his relationship with one in particular (a dancer whose sexual agility Tobi sums up with " she had positions than Baryshnekov") is at the heart of the big mystery. In short, the match has been struck to ignite the secrets and resentments that have brought this trio together.

Director Martin does his utmost to accommodate the three characters' ninety degree emotional turns. (Even Liotta's tough guy, a type he's known for on screen, gets a chance to let anger melt into tears). But the second act stumbles badly when Tobi and Lisa are left alone awaiting the outcome of Mike's volatile exit at the end of the first act. Belber's script tries to patch this fault line with Tobi rhapsodizing about knitting, trying to teach Lisa to dance and spicing things up further with talk (and possibly more) about oral sex.

At play's end all is revealed. We know whether Tobi is guilty of the transgression Lisa and Mike have come to clarify and why Mike's sleuthing for evidence gives the title its real meaning. We're also reasonably sure about what's going to happen next. Though the situation is too manufactured to occupy or minds with further thought about these characters and their issues once we leave the theater, Langella and his young colleagues do see to it that the two hours spent with them are fun and funny.

Postscript: This is so clearly Frank Langella's play that in the event that he misses a show, theater goers are likely to want their money back. It's therefore worth mentioning that I've seen understudy Malcolm Ingram in a similarly hammy role at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox. He wouldn't outdo Langella, but I suspect he would deliver a very satisfactory Tobi.

Death of Frank
One Million Butterflies/


Written by Stephen Belber
Directed by Nicholas Martin
Cast: Frank Langella, Ray Liotta and Jane Adams
Set Design: James Noone
Costume Design: Michael Krass
Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt
Sound Design: Kurt Kellenberger and Jerry Yager
Running time: 2 hours, includes one intermission
Plymouth, 236 West 45th Street, 212-239-6200
Tues through Sat @ 8:00PM, Wed & Sat @ 2:00PM, Sun @ 3:00PM $81.25, $61.25
From 3/13/04; opening 4/08/04
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 4/13/04
Last performance 5/23/04 after 28 previews and 53 performances.
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