Cloaca, Old Vic, London

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The Independent Culture

First, there's the title, with its off-putting excretory associations ("cloaca" is the name for the anus in birds and some animals); then there's the author, Maria Goos, who, being Dutch, is virtually unknown here; and then there's the drama itself, which seems to sit up and beg to be invidiously compared with Yasmina Reza's Art.

First, there's the title, with its off-putting excretory associations ("cloaca" is the name for the anus in birds and some animals); then there's the author, Maria Goos, who, being Dutch, is virtually unknown here; and then there's the drama itself, which seems to sit up and beg to be invidiously compared with Yasmina Reza's Art.

In launching the first production of his debut season as artistic director of the Old Vic, Kevin Spacey can't be accused of relying on a dead cert, even if the play was the Netherlands' biggest theatrical hit for 30 years. What emerges is a curiously underwhelming affair - a kind of portrait by numbers of the male mid-life crisis, with the occasional flash of piquant female perception (as when one character is described as staring at his wife's face "like a woman watching a football game"), and the intermittent telling detail about the emotional limitations and betrayals in male friendships.

In Art, a modernist daub was the catalyst for revealing dissensions. Here, the plot is propelled by the fate of some paintings by someone called Van Goppel. Pieter (Stephen Tompkinson), a gay council functionary, has amassed them over the years by taking them from the depot of written-off art in lieu of a present. But now, Van Goppel has been discovered by the art world, and the council wants his now valuable pictures back (including the four he has sold).

His three close fortysomething friends descend on his smart loft. There's Tom (Adrian Lukis), a coke-head lawyer; Jan (Hugh Bonneville), a politician whose marriage is in meltdown; and Maarten (Neil Pearson), a womanising dramatist whose plays, while exposing female flesh, never fall into "the trap of success".

There are some interesting twists as Goos's play reckons the cost of craving intimacy but being unprepared to pay the price, and there's a peppering of cautionary ironies. For example, the difficult birth, 18 years back, of the politician's daughter is a key part of the group's mythology. But now, the girl has lost her virginity to the playwright, precisely because (it appears) she's as sexually insouciant as her father. The play would benefit from more uncomfortable touches like that.

Spacey's production is punchily acted and nicely modulated as it moves into the darkness of the final scenes. But the central treachery that provokes the denouement can be seen coming a mile off.

Pieter has the gift of being able to spot the real thing amid mediocrity. Let's hope his talent rubs off on Mr Spacey for his future programming.

To 11 December (0870 060 6628)

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