Complicit, Old Vic, London
Mrs Affleck, NT Cottesloe, London
Private Lives, Hampstead, London
A new play about political shenanigans in America has been pipped to the post by the new presidency
Sunday 01 February 2009
Ever since the Old Vic postponed the press night of Complicit, a fortnight ago, rumours have circulated about Richard Dreyfuss being unable to learn his lines. Word spread about the veteran Hollywood star wearing an earpiece, so he could be surreptitiously prompted.
The good news is that Dreyfuss did not grind to an embarrassing halt – even once – at the rescheduled press performance of Joe Sutton's political drama. Directed by Kevin Spacey, Dreyfuss plays Ben Kritzer, a fictional journalist who finds himself under pressure in post-9/11 America; grilled by a Supreme Court prosecutor behind closed doors. Kritzer is threatened with prison unless he names his source: the mole who supplied him with top-secret documents for his exposé of the US involvement in special renditions.
Maybe the earpiece helps his flow, but Dreyfuss talks strikingly fast. He only fluffs the odd word in his angst-ridden speeches about freedom of the press, torture techniques, and whether the finger should be pointed at him for un-American activities, or at all the president's henchmen.
Sutton, having declined to write a head-on courtroom drama, focuses his chamber piece, alternately, on scenes at home between Kritzer and his wife, Elizabeth McGovern's Judith, and heated tête-à-têtes in a Supreme Court side room with his lawyer, David Suchet's Roger. Judith repeatedly tells her partner not to be a hero but, rather, to remember that he is a family man with kids. In the meantime, Roger keeps trying to prise the mole's name out of his client, insisting he can't do his job properly if he's left in the dark.
Suchet is on strong form: simmering with exasperation, exuding gravitas in his squat pinstripe suit, with just a hint of cynical manoeuvring. McGovern's pallid, willowy Judith manages to convey a mix of loving support and nagging distrust of her husband's priorities, though her character is disappointingly underwritten. She dwindles into weary silence while her husband, wracked by self-doubt, paces around swigging whisky. Dreyfuss is best in his earlier scenes, when he is frazzled but still self-confident, and wry about mistrusting Roger.
Spacey's in-the-round staging racks up the tension, hemming in his actors. However, they strain to keep the pressure mounting when the momentum drops, with Kritzer digging in his heels. Complicit admirably raises big questions about moral choices and compromise yet the piece is structurally garbled, with the journalist's stance on torture forever chopping and changing.
The bigger snag is that Spacey's whole production has missed its cue. Stuck in Bush's America, the depressed Kritzer dwells on its tarnished global reputation, not up to speed at all with Obama's hope-inspiring new policies.
A married couple are tortured by their own guilty consciences in Mrs Affleck. This is playwright Samuel Adamson's update of Little Eyolf, Ibsen's 1894 tragedy about bad parenting and twisted love. We begin in what looks like a dream home in 1950s Kent. Claire Skinner's Rita is an elegant housewife, with not a hair out of place in her golden chignon as she sits in her kitchen amid chore-saving mod cons. It's not long, though, before the flowers – brought by her sister-in-law, Audrey – are rammed into the blender. Rita isn't only a bored intellectual, she's a seethingly jealous spouse and a frosty mother. She wishes her crippled little boy were dead when her husband, Alfred, declares he is determined to devote himself to the doomed child.
The National has, recently, programmed outstanding new plays about dangerously unhappy wives and mothers, but this production, directed by Marianne Elliott, is mildly disappointing. Perhaps the long, thin set's stony grey beach, in the foreground, makes the kitchen feel too distant. Or maybe Skinner is too naturally gentle to make Rita's bitterness potently searing. Angus Wright's Alfred is uncharacteristically dull at first too, though his later bereaved desperation and near-incestuous intimacy with Naomi Frederick's Audrey is more arresting.
Finally, Hampstead Theatre's 50th anniversary season gets rolling with Noel Coward's Private Lives.
This comedy about remarried but still fixated old flames, who elope, was a historic hit for this theatre in 1962. It became Hampstead's first West End transfer and reinvigorated the playwright's faded reputation. What remains startling about Coward's dialogue is how quirkily witty his characters' best quips are, rather than highly artificial. More's the pity that director Lucy Bailey's period-costume production lacks brilliant comic timing and doesn't turn sharply dark regarding the domestic violence. Claire Price looks rather too angelically wide-eyed to play the boho Amanda, and Jasper Britton could be more of a brute as Elyot, but their all-over-each-other physical ease in their Paris bolthole is beautifully natural.
'Complicit' (0870 060 6628) booking to 21 Feb; 'Mrs Affleck' (020-7452 3000) to 29 Apr; 'Private Lives' (020-7722 9301) to 28 Feb
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