Some of the fans liked it though…

The Globe and Mail
Feeling Kevin Spacey’s Pain by Elizabeth Renzetti
February 10, 2005

LONDON– National Anthems
At the Old Vic Theatre in London
Directed by David Grindley. Written by Dennis McIntyre. Starring Kevin Spacey, Steven Weber and Mary Stuart Masterson
Rating: **

The giant American flag hanging across the front of the Old Vic’s stage might have been a bad omen. Granted, when the name of the play is National Anthems and its subject is the dashed hopes of the 1980s, the stars and stripes are forgivable. But it’s not as if many Londoners want to give America a big old hug these days. Waving the flag before the bulls is a brave man’s game. Alas, the payoff here is small and sputtering. This is too bad for Kevin Spacey, because he really could have used a win in the ring. As it is, the actor — back where he belongs, strutting and fretting on stage — almost single-handedly salvages a pretty dreary two hours. It’s hard not to ache with him as he tries, valiantly, to push this jalopy up a hill, especially when (to borrow from the script’s hammer-heavy obsession with materialism) you really want to see him driving a Jaguar. He’s had a rough time since he took over the artistic helm of the Old Vic Theatre.

He directed, but did not star in, the season’s first play, Cloaca. It got a clobbering you could hear back on Sunset Boulevard. The next play, a Christmas pantomime, featured Ian McKellen in a mouth-watering series of frocks. It was delicious, but not deep. Then there was Spacey’s ill-timed (and apparently comically intended) broadside against London theatre audiences and their love of cellphones. The clobbering now took on a Lord of the Flies aspect. (When a cellphone went off, briefly, during Tuesday’s performance of National Anthems, I wondered if Spacey would hurl his shoe into the crowd, and frankly prayed for such drama, but he carried on like a pro.)

Wisely, for his first starring vehicle at the Old Vic, Spacey has chosen a play that won him acclaim when he performed in it in the late 1980s. Sadly, he has also chosen a play that now seems as relevant as Cyndi Lauper’s hair. It is 1988, in the shiny, cold heart of affluent America, where success is represented by Leslie Reed’s shoulder-padded tangerine minidress and her husband Arthur’s incessant nattering about his Bang & Olufsen stereo, his Rolex and his $1,900 suit. The two have just moved into their new home in upscale Birmingham, Mich., when at the end of a party night, their neighbour Ben Cook (Spacey) knocks on the door and the Reeds invite him in — a rash act, as it turns out. It is a credit to Steven Weber that he drags Arthur from Snidely Whiplash territory by force of will, and to Mary Stuart Masterson that she can make us believe for a moment that she once loved this man.

But it is Spacey’s physicality that is the revelation in this production. At first Spacey seems to lack all vanity. He’s a shambling, self-effacing, eager-to-please mutt sidling up to Weber’s alpha-dog Weimaraner. He’s cringe-making, but he gets the best lines and the only laughs. Partway through though, as Cook’s identity begins to shift and the class boundaries start to dissolve, he is transformed into something quicker and more lethal. Until this point, you think there might be something more interesting at work than just a standard journey around the frail male ego, circa the Reagan era. Something revelatory, perhaps. Or, if that’s too ambitious, something at least mildly jolting. Instead, the play turns to football as a metaphor. If that’s ever been a good idea, it was a long, long time ago. The next time Kevin Spacey takes the Old Vic stage it will be in another American play — The Philadelphia Story, which has aged a bit better. It at least benefits from the glow of nostalgia. By that time, perhaps, all will be forgiven.


February 10, 2005
National Anthems by Toby Lichtig
Rating: * * * *

After recently directing the disappointing Cloaca, and hitting headlines over skirmishes while jogging in the small hours, Kevin Spacey is back to what he does best: pretending to be other people. In Dennis McIntyre’s National Anthems, he brilliantly plays the part of partycrasher Ben: an ageing fireman who has fallen on hard times. It’s the height of 1980s yuppiedom and an upwardly mobile couple, Arthur and Leslie, have just thrown a housewarming in their chintzy chocolate box of a house. The party’s over, but Ben invites himself in and marvels, half ironically, over the international trappings of wealth – Italian sofa, German car, Japanese garden. “1945”, he concedes, “was a long time ago”.

The couple enjoy being buttered up, but wonder why Ben is so reticent about his own life. The conversation then strains and cracks, revealing each character’s respective resentments. Drunkenness takes over, in a manner reminiscent of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and this comedy of manners soon descends into a painful – but comic – narrative of faded dreams and disillusionment.  Spacey is ably supported by Steven Weber and Mary Stuart Masterson in a play that shows that home is where the heart breaks.

© 2005 Archant Regional. All rights reserved.


First night: Spacey’s party piece falls flat

Charles Spencer reviews National Anthems at the Old Vic

I find myself worrying about Kevin Spacey. When he took over as the Old Vic’s artistic director and announced that his first two major productions would be new plays, I raised a sceptical eyebrow. New plays are notoriously risky propositions.

Spacey, however, insisted that the scripts he had chosen were absolute corkers, and it was impossible not to warm to his courage and enthusiasm.

Unfortunately the first play, Maria Goos’s Cloaca, flopped on to the stage with all the allure of a faintly rancid dead fish, and after a brief break for Ian McKellan’s enjoyable turn as Widow Twankey in Aladdin, Dennis McIntyres’s National Anthems proves another dud.

It is sparkily acted, with Spacey in particular delivering a splashy star turn. But the play feels shallow, contrived and dated.

Though National Anthems is receiving its British premiere at the Old Vic, it was first seen in the States in 1988, when Spacey also played the leading role. The play is a satire on the “greed is good” culture of the late 1980s, but the subject matter seems strangely irrelevant at a time when America is engaged in far more dangerous adventures.

Times have changed, and it seems bizarre to revive this parochial little play when the stakes are so much higher, and much more than capitalism is red in tooth and claw.

The action is set in a posh, white suburb of Detroit, in the new dream home of Arthur and Leslie Reed, an archetypal yuppie couple (remember yuppies?). He’s a lawyer, she teaches at an expensive private school, and they are just clearing up after a house-warming party.

Then Ben Cook (Spacey) arrives, uneasy amid the luxury, unmistakeably blue collar though he lives nearby. The couple reluctantly invite him in, patronise him, boast about their possessions. Arthur in particular can’t mention anything without also revealing how much he paid for it.

Tensions rise, as Spacey, a fireman who has recently saved a black woman’s life in a terrible blaze, spills his drink on the new carpet and insists on embarrassing party games. And by the second act the two men are playing a vicious game of American football in the luxurious living room, and beating eight bells out of each other.

The trouble is that it all proves so predictable and obvious. As soon as I saw Jonathan Fensom’s plush set, I guessed it would be trashed before the evening was out, and McIntyre, who died not long after the play was first produced, never trusts the audience to draw its own conclusions.

The ghastly Arthur isn’t allowed a single redeeming feature, the heroic fireman, pushed to the margins of society by greed, is presented as a tragic hero. The dramatist’s editorialising portrayal of racism and class conflict often seems more like a political pamphlet than a play.

David Grindley, who directed such a fine production of Mike Leigh’s not dissimilar though vastly superior Abigail’s Party, gets the most out of the jokes but can’t conceal the glib nature of the play, while his staging of the violence proves far too tame.

Spacey is initially charismatic and unsettling as the troubled fireman but is reduced to an embarrassing solo turn of blubbing sentimentality by the end. Steven Weber nails the vile Arthur with slick precision, but finds no hints of dramatic depth, and Mary Stuart Masterson as the house-proud wife only comes fully alive in a disconcertingly sexy cheer-leader routine.

I hate putting the boot into the Old Vic for the second time, for Spacey’s project is a noble one. But let’s see him in Shakespeare and bona fide American classics, not mediocre fare like this.


February 9, 2005
National Anthems, Old Vic, London
Spacey’s star vehicle can’t quite get off the ground by Paul Taylor

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. ~ The Independent (UK)  National Anthems, Old Vic, London (The Independent – UK) © 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.


February 9, 2005
Spacey’s Anthem is doomed by Nicholas de Jongh
Evening Standard
National Anthems – Old Vic
* Dir: David Grindley
* With Mary Stuart Masterson, Kevin Spacey, Steven Weber

I begin to have serious doubts about whether Kevin Spacey is the right man to run the Old Vic. He launched his regime as artistic director last autumn by presenting a dud Dutch drama about miserable, middle-aged men discharging emotional waste about the stage. He caps that dire experience with an even more boring, almost interest-free event.

Dennis McIntyre’s National Anthems, a minor comedy that finally slithers into melodrama’s gulch, mounts a flaccid, sentimental assault upon materialism and a values system that over rewards the university-educated at the expense of heroic, blue-collar public servants. Playwrights have made such indictments before. McIntyre had little fresh to add to the old charge sheet. The play is set in 1988, the year of its Connecticut premiere, with Spacey its star then as now. First the American flag, serving as a curtain, collapses in a vaguely symbolic gesture. A miscast, goateed Spacey, mustering a few flashes of conviction as Ben Cook, a sad, middle-aged American fireman, effects an entrance into the suburban, Detroit home of his new neighbours, the Reeds. Mr Spacey peddles a line of perky, pushy self-confidence, that makes light of his character’s underlying despair and isolation. At the climax, when charges of racism are in the air and Cook is verbally abused, Spacey charges into a hysterical re-enactment of Ben’s fire-fighting heroism with all the raging enthusiasm of a bull charging a red rag.

David Grindley’s production lacks the dimension of subtlety. Spacey’s initial, aggressive, streetwise air seems less that of a fireman trying to make a social impression than an actor putting on the wrong show. Steven Weber’s insipid, tax attorney, Arthur Reed, wearing a two-piece suit and one-set expression and Mary Stuart Masterson’s teacher-wife Leslie in a scarlet dress, whose skimpiness at the crotch exudes an air of never justified erotic promise, are as dull a young couple as any you could mischance to meet on a Saturday night. In the real world, rather than the contrivances and make believe of National Anthems, you can bet a million dollars the smart couple, tired after a party, would have shown Ben the burglar-proof door in a few icy minutes. Instead they keep him there for empty chat.

The living room, according to the text, is supposed to look beautiful and subtle. Lacking knowledge of what passes for beauty in Detroit leaves me unable to comment. Smart consumer stuff and status symbols, from Rolexes and Porsches to Bang and Olufsen speakers are duly, dully reverenced by Ben. The fireman, details of whose married life are left oddly unmentioned, increasingly emerges as a pathetic hero, penalised despite saving a woman’s life in a fire, his bravery relegated to a small item in a free newspaper. Spacey, however, wears the status of victim to the manner unborn. He is far more at home with situation comedy: the scenes of Ben’s knee-slapping parlour game, his spilling of alcohol on Arthur’s jacket and a carpet, the two items worth almost $11,000, injects notes of comic relief and embarrassment. The impromptu game of American football played by the two men tips the action towards violence and Arthur towards the gratuitously cruel dismissal that sends Bob into a frenzy. The extravagant finale does not, though, give this supine drama a lift from the doldrums where it lies anchored.

Spacey’s Anthem is doomed (Evening Standard – UK) ©2005 Associated New Media