Old Vic on a Spacey odyssey

Thesp unveils inaugural season at London theater

A starry revival of “The Philadelphia Story” and a Christmas pantomime with Ian McKellen will highlight Kevin Spacey’s first season as artistic director of London’s Old Vic Theater.

The more speculative corners of the media may have wanted to know the story behind Spacey’s “mugging” while walking his dog in a London park in the early ayem earlier in the week, but the two-time Oscar winner had more professional things to discuss April 22 when he sauntered on to the Old Vic stage to announce his inaugural lineup, which begins in September.

Spacey is directly involved with three of the four productions that will make up his first season at the playhouse, once home to Laurence Olivier’s National Theater and a showcase for some of Britain’s most legendary stage productions. (A 1,000-seater, the Vic will have a reduced capacity of 850 or so for most of Spacey’s tenure.)

Spacey will run the theater with his producer, the 51-year-old David Liddiment.

“I basically asked myself, what am I going to do for the next 10 years of my life? Will it be movie, movie, movie with an occasional play?” Spacey told Variety after the press confab. “And I thought, I’d rather do it the other way round — do play after play after play and squeeze a movie in.”

Spacey will make his professional theater directing debut with season opener “Cloaca,” by the Dutch writer Maria Goos in her own English-lingo translation. The five-character play will kick off a five-week run Sept. 16, opening Sept. 28 (through Dec. 11). Four of the five performers are confirmed: Hugh Bonneville (“Iris”), Stephen Tompkinson (TV’s “Drop the Dead Donkey”), Neil Pearson and Ingeborga Dapkunaite.

The actor, who has directed two films (“Albino Alligator” and upcoming entry “Beyond the Sea,” in which he also stars), said he knew by the intermission of the read-through that he had to direct Goos’ play. “Maria has her own voice,” he said, adding, “It’s a fantastic actor’s piece, pure theater where there’s nothing between the actors and the audience.”

The play, whose title is the Latin word for “sewer,” is the basis of a 2003 film version of the same name, already released in Holland. “It speaks to me completely,” Spacey said of the text. “I’m in my 40s, and all the men in this play are in their 40s. It’s very relevant to our culture, speaking now as a citizen living in London. And if the play ever went to New York, it would resonate there, as well: It’s deeply moving and very, very funny.”

“Cloaca” will be followed by that favorite British phenomenon, a Christmas pantomime, a theatrical form of which Spacey confessed complete ignorance. (Pantomimes are a good artistic director’s bet, since they almost always strike U.K. box office gold.) But it’s not every day you get McKellen starring as the Widow Twankey for director Sean Mathias in “Aladdin.”

That venture runs Dec. 17-Jan. 22, freeing Spacey up to do North American press on his Bobby Darin biopic “Beyond the Sea.” The $20 million film is due out in the U.S. around Thanksgiving from Lions Gate; Entertainment distributes the pic in Britain.

Spacey will appear in both remaining projects of the season. First up is an American three-hander, “National Anthems,” which Spacey performed early in 1988 at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Conn. (The New Haven staging of “Anthems,” directed by Arvin Brown, was originally skedded to star Al Pacino in Spacey’s eventual part as Michigan fireman Ben Cook.)

Does it matter that Spacey, 45 in July, is now 16 years older than when he initially did McIntyre’s play? “Not at all.”

Last up is “The Philadelphia Story,” with Spacey inheriting Cary Grant’s screen role as C.K. Dexter Haven. Production, which is eyeing a Broadway transfer early in 2006, will — if such claims are to be believed — rather amazingly mark the West End premiere of Philip Barry’s vintage comedy, which will be a co-venture with Duncan Weldon’s Triumph Prods.

Weldon had been attempting to put together a London staging of the same play a few seasons back, with Howard Davies directing Calista Flockhart. That never happened, but Flockhart’s name remains in the mix to play Tracy Lord, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Nicole Kidman among the Hollywood heavyweights also being circulated. (Spacey told Variety he was a student at Juilliard when he saw Paltrow’s mother, Blythe Danner, play Tracy in Lincoln Center’s early 1980s revival of the play.)

Spacey said no further casting would be confirmed until a director had been named. Davies, who helmed Spacey’s award-winning spin as Hickey in “The Iceman Cometh,” apparently is not on board this time around.

Further ahead, Spacey spoke of Beckett, Chekhov, and, as always, O’Neill as classic writers he would like to explore. (Long before “Iceman,” Spacey was a near-definitive Jamie in a 1986 Broadway and London revival of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” That show’s helmer was Jonathan Miller, the Englishman who went on to run the Old Vic for several seasons.)

“I want to consider all sorts of things,” Spacey told Variety. “I feel like, to some degree, this is now our playground.”

Liddiment pegged the cost of the first season at £2 million ($3.54 million) and said the productions could on average break even at less than 60% capacity in the horseshoe-shaped venue. And though Old Vic theater owner Sally Greene said Spacey was contracted for five years, the actor sounded reluctant to put a time period on his tenure: “Sally’s just making (the figure) up. I hope it’s longer than that. Look, it will probably take us three to four seasons to plant our feet firmly.”

He was adamant that this job takes precedence over all others, beyond post-production chores on “Beyond the Sea,” which in any case are taking place in London.

At the moment, Spacey has no further films pending, having recently finished three weeks’ shooting in Vancouver on Morgan Freeman starrer “Edison,” which is as yet unsold to distribs.

“My commitment is real,” Spacey said. “There may be some skepticism about that, but the best thing I can do is show up for work every day.”

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