"Cloaca" is the Latin word for sewer, which might seem -- in theater circles, especially -- a brazenly emphatic way of tempting fate. But there's no denying the waste represented by the opening production of Kevin Spacey's Old Vic regime, which looks set to succeed where the previous tenures of Jonathan Miller and Peter Hall took a wrong turn.

“Cloaca” is the Latin word for sewer, which might seem — in theater circles, especially — a brazenly emphatic way of tempting fate. But there’s no denying the waste represented by the opening production of Kevin Spacey’s Old Vic regime, which on the basis of star wattage alone looks set to succeed where the previous tenures of Jonathan Miller and Peter Hall took a wrong turn. Long-term allure of the venture may mean turning a blind eye to the English-language preem of Dutch writer Maria Goos’ play, a supposed hit in Holland (where it was subsequently filmed) that proves fairly heavy going away from home base. Still, Spacey is hardly the first artistic director to have faltered at the starting gate.

However, it’s in no way clear what constituted the appeal on the page of “Cloaca” beyond the desire (altogether welcome) of Spacey and producer David Liddiment to kick off a new theatrical gig with a play that also was new, at least to Britain.

Whether Goos has written something fresh, on the other hand, is open to debate: I can’t speak for the competition in Holland, but Anglo-American auds are sure to place its portrait of male menopause in the also-ran category. We’ve been here before, and usually better done.

Advance word trumpeted the similarities of “Cloaca” to Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning “Art,” another continental play in which a female writer presses a painting (or, in the case of “Cloaca,” numerous paintings) into the service of a dissection of the clearly disordered male psyche. The connections, however, don’t add up. Whereas “Art” cunningly used a blank canvas as a Rorschach test for the shifting affections among three men, the contentious paintings belonging to “Cloaca’s” gay civil servant Pieter (Stephen Tompkinson) are, like so much of Goos’ script, a bald-faced plot device lacking metaphorical heft.

What these canvases allow is the reunion of four fortysomething men who have lost their way. As played (pallidly) by Tompkinson, Pieter is the most timid and quietly self-lacerating of the lot. Anyone, however, would be hard-pressed to compete with the storm cloud created by chatterbox Tom (Adrian Lukis), a lawyer-turned-copywriter with a fondness for cocaine. (His mantra, appropriately, is “go go go.”)

Noisily ambitious in turn is on-the-make politico Jan (Hugh Bonneville (“Iris”), cast against type as a notable creep), who is on the outs with his (unseen) wife and seemingly barely aware of his own daughter, whose 18th birthday he has managed to forget.

The teenager, we discover, has spent time in the lecherous clutches of fourth chum Maarten (Neil Pearson at his oiliest), an avant-garde theater director whose clothing signals his profession before he speaks a word: The last of the men to step onto Robert Jones’s Euro-chic set, Maarten arrives dressed entirely in black.

“Cloaca,” unlike “Art,” introduces the fairer sex into the proceedings, though there’s little that is fair about the treatment of Ingeborga Dapkunaite’s Woman — the character, tellingly, is denied a name — in either the writing or Spacey’s surprisingly slack production. (Production marks the stage directing debut of the actor, who has helmed two films.)

A game presence under the circumstances, Dapkunaite appears in act two as (what else?) the prostitute who has been presented to Jan on the occasion of his turning 43. But as she spiels away in her native Russian, it’s hard not to bristle at the deeply patronizing use of the whore as Funny Foreigner, who at the same time isn’t above sticking it to the guys where they, uh, live.

No sooner have her set pieces ended than she exits, leaving Jan to explain the play’s title: “It’s sort of a sound, like ‘aloha,’ but for us,” says the same man who will later ask, with deadening irony, ” ‘Cloaca’ — does it really mean anything?” Tom’s self-deluded reply: “No.”

By this point, spectators probably are expected to be suppressing the urge to shout out “yes,” as if to train the Vic constituency for the audience participation to come at Christmas, when the theater tackles its first pantomime, “Aladdin.” Instead, you have to roll your eyes at the superficiality of a script that wears attempts at profundity like some great badge of honor. (And, at one point in act two, risks indicting itself big-time when Maarten remarks to Pieter, “It’s all a contrivance.” Indeed.)

The actors are a charming bunch on paper and look great in the various, totally egalitarian, PR shots for the show. (The cover of the pricey program — a magazine from Conde Nast, in fact — includes Spacey in a shot of the entire company.)

But onstage, their collective charmlessness is equaled only by the self-absorption of an evening that depends on communicating the shared past of a foursome who have reached a point of crisis. That’s missing, as is any sense that the cast is playing to each other and not just to a house that can be forgiven for admiring the sincerity of the larger endeavor while lamenting this particular play.

Cloaca

Old Vic Theater, London; 999 seats; £40 $72 top

Production

An Old Vic Theater presentation of a play by Maria Goos in two acts. Directed by Kevin Spacey.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Robert Jones; lighting, Mark Henderson; sound, Fergus O'Hare; assistant director, Jeremy Whelehan; producer, David Liddiment; executive producer, Colin Ingram. Opened and reviewed Sept. 28, 2004. Runs through Dec. 11. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Pieter - Stephen Tompkinson Tom - Adrian Lukis Jan - Hugh Bonneville Maarten - Neil Pearson Woman - Ingeborga Dapkunaite

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