National Anthems, Old Vic, London

By Paul Taylor
Friday 11 February 2005 01:00

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. The only direction in which his regime could go was up. 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 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 sideways move from Cloaca. The piece is more effective as a slick and sometimes 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. Spacey plays Ben Cook, a fireman who drops in unannounced on an affluent couple (Mary Stuart Masterson and Steven Weber) new to his Detroit suburb as they're clearing up after a party. Spacey has a lot of broad fun portraying the kind of overbearingly friendly and ineffably subversive neighbour that you would organize a neighbourhood watch to protect yourself against. The Home Beautiful (state-of-the-art speakers; Italian furniture) is safe neither from his unsettlingly garrulous compliments nor his not-so-inadvertent clumsiness.

There's underlying darkness, natch. Ben had saved a woman's life by pulling her from a burning hotel, but his courageous feat got him the sack because he disobeyed orders. He's an unemployed hero-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 with Ben in the lovely living room. The living room? Why don't these guys 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 as a reborn football champ and then crumple tragically 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 the hotel was for people on welfare. He's a loser period.

The character also comes across as a set of performance opportunities rather than a real, coherent person. And while Mary Stuart Masterson is striking as the coltish suburban chatelaine whose libido is farcically re-aroused by the football game, this figure emphasises how the piece was written to press particular buttons in American audiences. Despite the huge American flag that flutters to the floor at the start of Grindley's polished production, the play never attains the symbolic dimensions aimed for in the title. And up is still the only direction in which Spacey's weird regime can move.

To 23 April (0870 060 6628)

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