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Swimming With Sharks

Guy tells his power-crazed boss Buddy Ackerman that rival movie studio exec Stella is unreachable because she's whitewater rafting in Colorado with Tom Cruise. "Cruise? Hah! She is desperate."

Guy tells his power-crazed boss Buddy Ackerman that rival movie studio exec Stella is unreachable because she’s whitewater rafting in Colorado with Tom Cruise. “Cruise? Hah! She is desperate.” Michael Lesslie’s zesty stage rewrite of George Huang’s visceral and downright vicious Hollywood insider movie is nothing if not up to date. Unfortunately, despite the engagingly twisty plotting, the casting and direction of this premiere production undermines the property’s potential strength.

Tone and plotline remain the same as the 1994 Kevin Spacey starrer, a deliciously nasty tale of power plays and backstabbing, rising to the point of double-crossing, bloody revenge.

Guy (Matt Smith) is the new kid on the block, the wet-behind-the-ears film school graduate whose love for movies is so strong he pegs his age by its proximity to “Terms of Endearment” winning the best picture Oscar. Endearments, however, are nowhere to be seen in his new job as assistant to Buddy (Christian Slater), a Hollywood producer whose stock rating has rocketed from “King of Wham-bam Action” to “Lord of Gore.”

Buddy’s incessant insults and ritual humiliations drive Guy’s daily grind. “You are nothing! If you were in my toilet bowl I wouldn’t bother flushing. My bath-mat means more to me than you!”

Enter the pivotal character of producer Dawn Lockard (Helen Baxendale), a role beefed up from the movie. She’s armed with an earnest project she wants to get made. From there on in, the three characters struggle for supremacy by wrestling for control of the putative project.

Although he loathes its liberal sensibility, Buddy is desperate for the script to provide his passport to the president of production post. In order to fight for control, both men need Dawn, and all manner of alliances, true and false, are made. When Dawn swiftly winds up in an unlikely relationship with Guy, the stakes begin to climb.

At least, that’s what the script indicates. Unfortunately, Wilson Milam’s direction neither roots the actors strongly enough to begin with nor adequately calibrates them through what should be a step-by-step series of encounters raising the blood temperature of both characters and auds.

The irony of the original movie is that the bad guy became a star: Buddy was played by the barely known Spacey with the suave savagery that became his hallmark. Understandably unwilling to ape him, Slater plays Buddy from the opposite end of the spectrum. Where Spacey was chilling, Slater is a shimmering tower of rage.

He’s good at fierce and funny. Faced with charges of moral irresponsibility, he yells and wins a big laugh on, “Oh come on, some hick kid in Texas tears his brother’s eye out with a meat skewer and I’m responsible? Blame Spielberg for the fuckin’ Holocaust.”

Buddy has enough laugh-out-loud one-liners to keep things moving, but his unmediated fury grows tiring. Slater finds no shades of gray. Worse, yelling makes his character look weak and fatally renders his treatment of Guy as comic, undermining Smith’s performance to the point that his brutal revenge ploy seems unearned.

A talent on the rise, Smith is not helped by Milam’s staging. He’s stuck too often in profile on Dick Bird’s bland, multifunction office set, none of whose spaces allow the actors to dominate the stage. Auds rarely get to witness or feel his reactions as Milam is too busy pumping the dialogue.

Baxendale, a strong TV actor, is sadly miscast. Initially at least, Dawn has to be a ball-breaking power player who radiates control. Baxendale is best at tight, reproving characters; here, she’s so busy concentrating on her American accent, she never relaxes to the point where auds see Dawn’s all-important ease. The sexual chemistry between the leads is almost nonexistent.

The film became a showdown between Guy and Buddy, intercut with the circumstances that lead them there. Lesslie’s stage version instead plays everything chronologically. Although the production descends into the playing out of a thriller plot with too little emotional connection, there are definite signs that, in defter hands, this newly commissioned script could have future life.

Swimming With Sharks

Vaudeville Theater, London; 685 seats; £45 $92 top

  • Production: A CMP, Nica Burns, Max Weitzenhoffer for Nimax Theaters, the Weinstein Co., Old Vic Prods., Ian Lenagan, Ian Osborne presentation of a play in two acts by Michael Lesslie, adapted from the screenplay by George Huang. Directed by Wilson Milam.
  • Crew: Sets and costumes, Dick Bird; lighting, Paul Anderson; sound, Matt McKenzie for Autograph; production stage manager, Wyn Howard-Thomas. Opened, reviewed Oct. 16, 2007. Running time: <B>2 HOURS, 20 MIN</B>.
  • Cast: Buddy Ackerman - Christian Slater Guy - Matt Smith Dawn Lockard - Helen Baxendale Cyrus - Jonathan Newth Rex - Arthur Darvill Daniel Faruk - Fanos Xenofos Mitzy - Elizabeth Croft Jack - Mark Edel-Hunt
  • Music By: