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Under fire, Spacey rethinking Old Vic

Announces third season as artistic director

LONDON — You gotta hand it to him: The man knows how to play the crowd.

Announcing his third season as artistic director of London’s historic Old Vic Theater, Kevin Spacey flattered assembled journalists by seating them not in the red-plush, gilt-edged auditorium but actually on the stage. Better yet, he opened proceedings by running the gauntlet, smiling his way down each row of seats, shaking everyone’s hand.

The question hovered, not for the first time, is Spacey an artist or a politician?

Determined to improve his reputation as the former, he has a new season that should go a long way toward quelling the clamor of critical dissent that’s been building over his distinctly rocky two-year Old Vic tenure.

Things appeared to be coming to a head when the early closing of Robert Altman’s lamentable production of “Resurrection Blues,” Arthur Miller’s limp satire of presidential tyranny and penile dysfunction, was followed by the theater going dark until September. That vacancy helped prompt an outbreak of negative coverage in the British press.

Spacey himself opens the 2006-07 season in September playing Jim Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten.” Edward Hall, one of a triumvirate of newly appointed associates alongside Anthony Page and Matthew Warchus, will follow that production, directing his all-male Propellor company in a six-week season of Shakespeare comedies, “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Twelfth Night.” These are co-productions with the Watermill, the tiny regional theater also responsible for Broadway’s current “Sweeney Todd.”

Tony winner Robert Lindsay will star in John Osborne’s “The Entertainer,” a role that rejuvenated the career of its original interpreter, Laurence Olivier. And although dates are still being finalized, “Lord of the Rings” director Warchus will take a Tolkien holiday to helm the first London revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s three-play comic masterpiece “The Norman Conquests.”

Underlining the fact that Spacey is here to stay, he has commissioned plays for future seasons from Samuel Adamson, author of the National Theater’s “Southwark Fair,” and Rachel Wagstaff.

“Misbegotten” plays to Spacey’s strengths. His first London stage appearance was in O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” in 1986, and this production reunites him with Howard Davies, who directed him in London and on Broadway in a well-received “The Iceman Cometh.”Spacey’s leading lady for this production is still to be announced. Early rumors put Alison Janney in the frame, but the money is now on Janet McTeer, whose 1997 Tony win for Page’s revival of “A Doll’s House” would certainly up the chances of the hoped-for Broadway transfer. That advent would instantly add legitimacy to Spacey’s Old Vic stewardship.

To keep the possibility alive, Spacey will not appear in or direct anything else next season, unlike previous years in which he has done both.

He began his artistic directorship in 2004 helming the best-forgotten Dutch play “Cloaca,” followed by two shows in which he starred. Spacey had held on to the rights of “National Anthems,” a strained, now-dated vehicle for his admittedly bravura turn. He followed that with an over-produced and under-directed (by Jerry Zaks) “The Philadelphia Story.”

Unfortunately, the production merely proved that the celebrated movie script was stronger than the play. But, as has largely been the Old Vic story, the casting (and in this case the title) was enough to pull in the punters — until Spacey took a five-week break to play Lex Luthor in Bryan Singer’s forthcoming “Superman.” Before “Resurrection Blues,” the second year was an improvement, starting when thesp Ian McKellen donned drag in the pantomime “Aladdin.”

“Richard II” also worked, despite slight central miscasting. Spacey is a dazzlingly charismatic stage presence, but as one leading actor observes, “Kevin will not allow himself to show vulnerability.” That made him peculiarly unmoving as Shakespeare’s weak but lyrical title character. Yet he won the Critics’ Circle award for his work in Trevor Nunn’s one-track but unarguably cogent production.

Speaking to Variety after the press conference, Spacey argued there have been advantages to the recent critical backlash.

“Our backers have been galvanized into action,” he says. In what way? “Cash! More checks have come in from benefactors, donors and partnerships. And although Morgan Stanley’s season sponsorship will end this year, they’re continuing their relationship with us and a new season sponsor will be announcedlater in the year.”

Detractors — including actors who have worked onstage at the Old Vic — accuse him of running celebrity theater. As one quietly opines, “The artistic policy seems to revolve around names, not the work. When the names fail, that’s a problem.”

“I would disagree,” retorts Spacey evenly. “People imagined we’d be casting, I don’t know, Catherine Zeta-Jones, but no. Which celebrities have we cast?”

Well, there’s Matthew Modine and Neve Campbell, whose presence alongside Altman countered the horrendous reviews for “Resurrection Blues,” bringing total audience figures to 425,000 across the seasons. Spacey won’t be drawn on what that represents in terms of capacity but points out it’s twice the numbers for the two seasons before he took charge.

The Old Vic is a uniquely difficult venue, a well-loved institution with a long and distinguished history as a popular theater devoted to high-grade classical work at affordable prices. It’s like a subsidized house, but without subsidy. That explains its immense outreach, development and education programs masterminded by associate producer Kate Pakenham.

Back to the future, the newly appointed artistic associates are there, says Spacey, “to help us learn and grow.”

Spacey spent much of the press conference talking in caring politician mode about learning. But asked what exactly he’d learned, he refused to answer.

“That just sort of opens me up to say, ‘I’ve learned this, I’ve learned that’ … and then everyone can say, ‘See, he was wrong and we were right.’ ”

There is also the suggestion from both inside and outside the company — Financial Times critic Alastair Macaulay, for one — of the whiff of misogyny in the lineup. There have been no women directors for any of the major productions and strong women’s roles have been dwarfed by those for leading men, a situation that won’t be improved by Hall’s all-male Shakespeares.

However, there is a planned play from Malcolm Mackay about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and a possible Page production of Edward Albee’s “The Lady From Dubuque.”

Considering everything, how does Spacey judge his success?

“My real honest feeling is it’s a little early to start assessing the success or failure of a theater company — it’s not a one-off West End production looking to make money and get out. We’ll look back in five seasons and see where we are, what we’ve done, what we’re taking risks on.”

And this year’s dark months?

“Nobody is being laid off. It was just a tiny little bump. The idea that it was a disaster or a crisis — that has nothing to do with reality. The truth is, I understand what papers do. My name can be put in a headline where it wouldn’t be a headline for any other theater. That comes with the territory. I recognize it’s not personal: It’s just about selling newspapers, and I’m about selling theater tickets.”

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