Review by Jack Foley
I HAVE been fortunate enough to see Kevin Spacey grace the London
stage on two occasions - in The Iceman Cometh and now
On both occasions, he has been mesmerising. But then the actor
has that rare ability to pull you into a scene, keeping you transfixed
for the entire time he is performing, and then gasping in breathless
wonder the moment he has finished.
In a sense, he is a magician, a smooth-talking trickster whose
outwardly charismatic persona frequently gives rise to something
far darker and frequently surprising.
In The Iceman Cometh, way back in 1998, he played a
tormented soul, or pipe-dreamer, whose failings and insecurities
were eventually revealed to a spellbound audience in a lengthy
monologue of breathtaking intensity.
While in National Anthems, now playing at The
Old Vic, he plays a world-weary fireman, whose heroism
during a recent rescue fails to bring him the respect and fame
he feels he has long-since deserved.
In both plays, Spacey starts out as the congenial visitor, only
to reveal the inner torment that's been tearing him apart, and
which has a bearing on everyone around him (audience included).
In National Anthems, a revival of Dennis McIntyre's
play (which Spacey first performed at the Long Wharf Theatre,
New Haven, in 1988), he is jovial neighbour, Ben Cook, who enters
the home of his new yuppie neighbours, Arthur and Leslie (Steven
Weber and Mary Stuart Masterson), uninvited one night in suburban
What begins as a slightly awkward encounter quickly turns into
a game of one-upmanship and mutual baiting, as Arthur and Leslie
are quickly exposed as a materialistic couple who barely know
each other (despite having been married for nine years).
Ben seems to delight in poking fun at them, and the audience
laughs along with him, all the while knowing there is more to
this visitor than meets the eye.
A scene in which Ben is tricked into
holding a cigarette for Arthur whenever Leslie returns to the
room is typical of the humour played out at the expense of the
couple, as is a drinking game that exposes Arthur's competitive
Far from being able to contain himself, Arthur is revealed to
be a career-driven, gadget-obsessed control freak - a suburban
Patrick Bateman (of American Psycho fame) if you will, complete
with slick suit and designer watch.
When Leslie is unable to keep up with the drinking game, he takes
a perverse delight in ridiculing her, and when Ben inadvertently
spills his drink on his suit, he looks like he might be able to
Yet Leslie, too, is exposed as equally shallow - a trophy wife
who prides herself on her cleanliness and who has invested all
her time and energy into their house, which is devoid of anything
They quickly dislike Ben, only deciding to tolerate his presence
if it can bring them a higher standing in their new community,
without realising the damage he is about to inflict.
Come the second act, the fragility of their relationship is easily
exposed in line with Ben's own instability.
By the time the two men square up to each other in a mock game
of American football, it is clear that none of the three lives
we have been witnessing will ever be the same again.
Spacey's revelations, in particular, are devastatingly tragic
and likely to leave the audience feeling sucker-punched and winded.
It is testament to Spacey's skill (and magic) as an actor that
you won't have been able to see them coming.
And McIntyre's blackly comic screenplay provides a perfect showcase
for his skills as an actor, allowing him to toy with the audience
as much as his guests, before pulling the rug right out from under
them (almost literally).
Yet Masterson and Webber have their moments, too, and seldom
become dwarfed by Spacey.
The play, itself, works as a metaphor for many things - the failure
of the American dream, mid-life crisis, materialism in the modern
world and fractured dreams.
Yet it never feels overly heavy-going and frequently had the
audience laughing out loud or delivering impromptu rounds of applause.
Spacey, especially, had them eating out of the palm of his hand.
The trick for theatre-goers, therefore, is not to miss out.