Michael Weller’s 1988 “Spoils of War” was a marked departure for the playwright whose “Moonchildren” and “Loose Ends” had been major signposts in the lives of a generation that came of age in the Vietnam era and buried its heart in “The Big Chill.” With “Spoils,” Weller — who scripted Milos Forman’s films “Hair” and “Ragtime”– dropped the almost anthropological veneer of his previous writing to offer the wrenching story of a lonely, alienated 15-year-old boy who orchestrates the reunion of the vivacious mother who has raised him and the high-living father he has just met for the first time.
Commissioned by Off Broadway’s Second Stage company, “Spoils of War” from the beginning had a major plus in the casting of Kate Nelligan as the mother. The role is remarkably similar to one she had played unforgettably in David Hare’s “Plenty”– that of a charismatic, politically committed, self-obsessed woman unable to manage the transition from anti-war activism to postwar ennui.
Weller’s admittedly autobiographical play was messy, though never less than interesting and occasionally moving, mostly because it was presented from the perspective of 15-year-old Martin.
It was an adolescent’s hopelessly confused and yearning observation of his parents’ failed romance.
“Spoils” was never better than at Second Stage, and while Nelligan has stayed with it in its transition first to a (failed) Broadway show and now network TV, it has lost its power in increments. The “ABC Premiere Showcase” presentation occasionally evokes the sad, raw power of the original, but mostly it’s an enervated and enervating affair, whiny and tediously slack when it should crackle.
Where the play was set in New York City, Weller’s teleplay begins with Elise (Nelligan) and Martin (Tobey Maguire) leaving Colorado and returning to the city. There, she is reunited with friends (Rhea Perlman and Matthew Walker) from her activist days, and Martin begins stalking his father, Andrew (John Heard), a cynical fashion photographer.
When Martin finally introduces himself to his father (a funny set piece in Andrew’s studio), he begins laying the groundwork for a reunion that he hopes will blow up Andrew’s current fling with Penny (Andrea Roth) and reunite his family.
Well, the filmmakers have zero feel for the New York setting, and the British Columbia locations and sets don’t even come close. That’s inexcusable for a story so resolutely New York-bound, and in opening up the play to include what presumably are the NYC environs of upstate and the Hamptons, the whole thing looks bogus.
By arbitrarily updating the play from the ’50s to the ’70s, this version robs Elise of a social context that gave her physical and emotional voracity such power.
Under David Greene’s molasses direction, the telepic is disorienting and slow going, especially for the first two-thirds.
“Spoils” does come to life when Elise and Andrew meet again, when the fortified Nelligan finally conjures that irresistible mix of purposefulness and hunger — and Heard stops looking like William Shatner with heartburn, and actually makes us recoil at the emotional black hole Andrew’s smugness has until now convincingly disguised. We only hear them in the wake of their night in each other’s arms and it’s still remarkably affecting.
Roth is lovely in a role originated by Annette Bening, and as Elise’s confidante, Perlman displays considerable power.
But the best thing about this incarnation of “Spoils of War” is Maguire, a beautiful boy devoted to his imperfect mother. An utterly unaffected performance , it’s well worth watching — despite the infuriating hatchet job going on around him.