Kevin Spacey talks exceptionally fast in “National Anthems,” as if daring the audience to keep up with the Bob Seger music that propels the show, or perhaps in accordance with the agitation behind Dennis McIntyre’s play. Whatever the reason, its star’s vocal rhythms aren’t all that’s speedy about the first production of a still-embryonic Old Vic regime to actually put Spacey center-stage. The perf, like David Grindley’s expert production, has the sense of danger and edge we associate with the double Oscar winner of old; even when the play goes AWOL — which is more than once — there’s scant denying the energy of the man in the driver’s seat.
For Spacey, the evening constitutes a welcome return to form after countless disappointments and/or outright flops (ever since “American Beauty,” basically), and it’s easily the most exciting of the three ventures of Spacey’s Old Vic tenure to date.
Does the play itself merit Spacey’s rabid devotion across the decades, from a 1988 run at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater to now? Probably not. On the other hand, every actor surely recognizes a good role when he sees it, and in volatile fireman Ben Cook, a character defined by a uniquely American psychic disfigurement, Spacey has one in spades.
There was genuine cause for concern when Spacey announced the project, since this actor’s personal obsessions of late haven’t born particularly happy fruit. Here was a fiercely — some might say myopically — committed actor returning to a part, and a play, he has held dear for 16 years (first time around was as a last-minute replacement for Al Pacino) — about twice as long as Spacey had wanted to bring to the bigscreen the life of Bobby Darin.
But “National Anthems,” it turns out, is no “Beyond the Sea.” Whereas Spacey seemed to be forever apologizing for his mere presence in his latest film, the age discrepancy between him and Darin prompting a crippling self-consciousness, the actor all but owns the Old Vic stage here — while being gracious enough to allow two gifted co-stars, Mary Stuart Masterson and a scarily dynamic Steven Weber, to leave their imprint as well.
Latter visiting Americans play Arthur and Leslie Reed, a yuppie couple in suburban Detroit, living an American dream defined by material success (the neighboring Ben’s best quip comes in response to his discovery of the value of Arthur’s Rolex watch) and all manner of goods made chic by dint of being European. Arthur’s a lawyer and Leslie teaches music and art, in between keeping apparent tabs on the relative prosperity of everyone on the street.
So one can imagine the pair’s surprise when Ben not only arrives unannounced at the tail end of a party but — gasp! — is revealed to be blue-collar, to boot. A fireman for 21 years, Ben comes prepared with stories of both bravery and grief, as well as an instinctual sense of how easily the socially aspirant balloon of American society is punctured.
Why has Ben shown up? To act as the spur to conscience that McIntyre was advocating in 1988 and that remains no less necessary now. (The writer died in 1990 of cancer, age 47. “Brooklyn Boy” scribe Donald Margulies gets a credit as script consultant, though the text remains McIntyre’s.)
And what better way to clear the air than to subject the competing machismos of the play –Ben’s working-class fury against Arthur’s servility to Mammon — to a game of football? Leslie gets to be an audience of one, not to mention the sort of onlooker who, as Masterson wittily suggests, changes allegiances depending upon who’s doing best. In the climate of “National Anthems,” you side with the winner at whatever price to your soul.
It’s probably evident that “National Anthems” is hardly the subtlest of plays, but then neither is Mike Leigh’s “Abigail’s Party,” which Grindley revived in 2002 in London with similar acumen. (The Englishman has also been responsible this past season for reclaiming British warhorse “Journey’s End” for keeps.) And the helmer must have learned from working on Leigh how to let the details speak for themselves — Masterson’s Leslie brings a droll Stepford Wives-ish intensity to serving shrimp puffs — without suffocating the characters in editorial comment.
All three actors inhabit fully alive, adrenalized characters who resist the play’s reductio ad absurdum toward symbol-making, with Weber, in particular, exhibiting the whiplash timing of a man who clearly lost any generosity of spirit long ago.
Spacey gets all manner of set pieces, several of which tilt the play off its quasi-surreal axis. (Announcing “he’s more than a neighbor,” Arthur helpfully tips us off that Ben is Not What He Seems.) But the actor is in control throughout, whether dazzling his hosts in the first act with a magic trick or — talk about surreal! — imagining who might star in a movie of Ben’s life: Clint Eastwood is the preferred choice.
Yet for all the unavoidable bravura, the perf is nowhere more moving than at the very end, when Spacey retreats from the house, as battered as his forlorn country, a clearly spent force. As he walks away, head bowed, the actor announces his suitability for an altogether greater play: Spacey as Willy Loman someday?