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Spacey pulls another neat trick on London stage



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 National Anthems.

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 Detroit.

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 streak.

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 kill him.

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 American.

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.

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