Spacey takes to the Old Vic stage to confront critics

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He has been condemned for choosing the wrong plays and berated for failing to take as many starring roles as he might. But Kevin Spacey last night responded to critics of his artistic leadership of the Old Vic in London by stepping out in a production of a classic American play with a barnstorming leading role.

For the next three months, the Hollywood star is appearing as Jamie Tyrone, a failed, booze-raddled actor, in A Moon for the Misbegotten, a kind of coda to Eugene O'Neill's great autobio-graphical work, Long Day's Journey into Night.

The production reunites Spacey with the director Howard Davies, with whom he first worked in London in 1998 on O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh at the Almeida. On the strength of the Spacey name, advance box office ticket sales have proved even stronger than, for example, Kathleen Turner's recent West End turn in Who's Afraid of irginia Woolf?

Bill Clinton, a friend of Spacey's, is among those who have already seen the new production. But it will be the critical reaction that will be important for the start of Spacey's third season in charge of the historic venue, where Laurence Olivier once led the incipient National Theatre. Despite positive reviews for his Richard II directed by Trevor Nunn and strong public support for nearly all of his productions - except Resurrection Blues, Arthur Miller's final play, clunkily directed by the Hollywood legend Robert Altman - Spacey's leadership of the Old Vic has faced some serious questions.

Plays such as the inaugural production, Cloaca by Maria Goos and National Anthems by Dennis McIntyre were deemed not worthy of staging by the critics, who believed Spacey should play to his strengths as a great actor and to the Old Vic's heritage as a centre of groundbreaking theatre.

However, Nica Burns, the theatre owner and producer who is co-producing A Moon for the Misbegotten, yesterday defended Spacey.

"You never really understand things until you're there, but I've seen the man in action and he has clearly made a huge, serious, emotional life commitment to this particular theatre and all that it stands for," she said.

"He is a very hard-working serious artistic director and I think that's good news. He's not swanning around - or sometimes he swans around but actually when he does he's glad-handing.

"He goes out there and he raises the money. He sits in his office, he thinks about it and he knows all the staff. You can see him leading the place. I have complete respect for him.

"The Old Vic needed something brilliant happening to it and I can't see anything more brilliant in the last 10 years than this. So he has a flop, so what? We all have flops. But we don't get pilloried about it for ages."

Ms Burns, whose previous productions include Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is co-producing with the Old Vic. She already owned the UK rights to the play and had asked Howard Davies to direct. He wanted Spacey to star, but the Hollywood actor would do it only on condition that it was staged at the Old Vic.

Ms Burns said: "Of course I would have liked to do it at one of my own theatres but Kevin is well worth it."

The production co-stars Eve Best, the rising actress who worked with Davies on the National's award- winning Mourning Becomes Electra, as Josie Hogan and Colm Meaney as Phil Hogan, her father.

The production runs until Christmas and there are already rumours of a Broadway transfer. With the Old Vic's near-neighbour, the Young Vic, reopening next month after a £12.5m makeover, this part of the South Bank is set to enjoy a bustling autumn.