First Night: A Moon for the Misbegotten, Old Vic, London

Spacey confronts and confounds his Old Vic critics
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Kevin Spacey's last season at The Old Vic petered out wretchedly with the critical disaster of Resurrection Blues. It takes an almost ingenious ineptitude on the part of a producer to bring together two American giants - dramatist Arthur Miller and director Robert Altman - and contrive to expose them both to ridicule through the exercise. Shortly afterwards, there was further proof of mismanagement when, through bad planning as much as bad luck, The Old Vic was forced to go dark for the summer.

So its a joy to report a glorious bounce-back. The new season opened with a production by Howard Davies that is beautiful, funny, and cathartic. The play is by Eugene O'Neill, arguably the greatest of American playwrights. He did not live to see a performance of A Moon for the Misbegotten, his last completed work. And when the play received its posthumous premier, it was greeted with dismay and the charge that it was well below par.

Spot any parallels? The superstitious might think that The Old Vic was tempting fate in reviving it after Resurrection Blues, another work by an American master that met with scorn and disappointment when posthumously produced. The difference is that here Spacey the producer has gathered just the right team to do justice to a play that time has proved to be a work of shattering genius.

Howard Davies is the greatest British interpreter of O'Neill. And he has worked before with Eve Best and Kevin Spacey, to massive acclaim, on work by this dramatist. Indeed, Spacey made his acting debut in London in Davies' production of The Iceman Cometh.

Here he plays James Tyrone Junior, a ham actor who is drinking himself to death. The character is a thinly disguised portrait of O'Neill's brother, a man who also appears in A Long Day's Journey Into Night. In A Moon For the Misbegotten, the dramatist seeks to forgive and bestow absolution on his deceased sibling through the figure of Josie Hogan, the misfit daughter of an Irish tenant farmer on Connecticut land owned by the Tyrone family. Spacey's superb performance shows you a man who tries to hide his haunted alcoholic despair behind the jauntily cynical front of a Broadway "lad". As the seemingly tough, joshing tomboy-like Josie, Eve Best in her heart-stopping performance, reveals a woman with a life-giving capacity for love and virginal tenderness who has had to adopt the pose of a promiscuous hoyden.

The actors appear to have achieved the deep rapport experienced by the characters - two people who can kid the world but can't fool themselves. The lacerating twist is that, while he understands and loves Josie better than anyone, James incubates a mother-centred self- hatred that prevents them ever achieving lasting happiness. During their climactic alfresco encounter on a moonlit night, he hurls the stones of his whisky-fuelled disgust at her and she selflessly opens her arms and allows him to sleep on her breast. It's a kind of heroic act of euthanasia. Here is a man who is a psychological corpse already and, though it destroys everything she had ever wanted, she gives him permission to depart and die.

Exquisitely judged in terms of lighting, shifts of mood and undulating pattern of raised and dashed hopes, Davies' production gives us thrilling access to this episode. I do not see how Best and Spacey could have delineated its human depths and breadths better. I have been one of the harshest critics of the Spacey regime at The Old Vic. This marvellous evening gives one the sense that they have learned by their past mistakes and may go on to a thrilling future.