National Anthems, Old Vic, London

Spacey's star vehicle can't quite get off the ground

Last autumn, Kevin Spacey's artistic directorship of the Old Vic was launched with Cloaca , a play that hit the stage with all the lustre and vibrancy of a bag of stale bread. It seemed then that up was the only direction in which his regime could go.

Last autumn, Kevin Spacey's artistic directorship of the Old Vic was launched with Cloaca , a play that hit the stage with all the lustre and vibrancy of a bag of stale bread. It seemed then that up was the only direction in which his regime could go.

Now, after a pantomime parenthesis, the season continues with National Anthems , a three-hander by Dennis McIntyre in which Spacey reprises a role he first performed in a 1988 production of the play in New Haven, Connecticut. His programming of this rare revival (staged by an English director, David Grindley) indicates that he thinks that the play deserves rescuing from neglect. Is he right?

Well, it's a bit of a sideways move from Cloaca , actually. The piece is more effective as a slick and sometimes wincingly contrived showcase for Spacey's acting talents than as the savage satire on late-Eighties materialism in America that it's cracked up to be.

The star plays Ben Cook, a fireman who drops in unannounced on an affluent couple (Mary Stuart Masterson and Steven Weber) who live next door to him in a new Detroit suburb as they're clearing up after a party. Spacey has a lot of broad fun early on portraying the kind of overbearingly friendly and ineffably subversive neighbour that you would organise a neighbourhood watch to protect yourself against.

There's underlying darkness, natch. It turns out that Ben recently saved a woman's life by pulling her from a burning hotel. But this courageous feat has got him the sack because it came about by disobeying orders.

He's an unemployed hero only for a day in the local free press and his Yuppie attorney host (lean, mean Weber) makes the most of this pathetic predicament, when he comes off worst in a one-to-one American football match which he plays with Ben in the lovely living room.

The living room? Why don't these guys just drive out to a park? Because it's the author's idea of a neat irony to have the values of fetishistic materialism and virile self-assertion clash in such highly artificial circumstances.

Spacey gets to strut about comically as a reborn football champ and then crumple tragically and veer into madness as the attorney delivers one viciously bigoted blow after another.

Ben's bravery, he insists, does not count in worldly terms because the woman was black and because the hotel was a residence for people on welfare. He's a loser period.

The character also comes across as a set of performance opportunities rather than a real person. Despite the huge stage-draping American flag that flutters to the floor at the start of Grindley's polished production, the play never persuades you that it attains the symbolic dimensions aimed for in the title.

And up is still the only direction in which this weird regime can move.

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