The terrible timing is not Kevin Spacey’s fault: He couldn’t have known “Complicit” — U.S. dramatist Joe Sutton’s fictional indictment of his country’s possible condoning of torture and rendition — would premiere after President Obama had taken steps to dismantle that practice. However, as artistic director of the Old Vic and helmer of this production, Spacey must shoulder the blame for the misconceived staging, stilted direction and, worse, the baffling choice of a torpid script.
In the wake of 9/11, political journalist Ben (Richard Dreyfuss) wrote an op-ed column suggesting that, to counteract the new terrorism, a degree of torture might be justified. Now he has evidence of his government’s links to torture, and he’s terrified he may have been complicit in opening the door to such action.
As a study of a whistle-blowing journalist facing a Grand Jury demanding he reveal the source of his leak, this must have looked good on paper. After all, it carries echoes of scandals from Abu Ghraib through to the New York Times’ Judith Miller case. But within moments it’s clear that although Sutton’s scenario might be politically attractive, his writing fails to dramatize the issues his characters are so intent upon expounding.
Depressingly, for most of the flaccid first half, they don’t even do that. Instead, a tension-free succession of unengaging duologues unrolls in which Ben angrily withholds relevant details of his actions and reasons from both his powerful lawyer Roger (David Suchet) and his terminally frustrated wife Judith (Elizabeth McGovern). Why? Because Sutton needs to reveal all that in the second half.
Expectations that matters might then strengthen are soon quashed: This is a courtroom drama without the courtroom. Instead, we get the backstory on video.
Clips of a TV interview with real-life BBC senior political commentator Andrew Marr provide details of Ben’s inflammatory publication, none of which can be news to British audiences with even a cursory knowledge of Guantanamo and other widely exposed scandals. This helps us take Ben seriously as an experienced journalist, a concept otherwise hard to swallow given the bizarre naivety of an expert with seemingly no notion of the legal ramifications of his actions.
Spacey’s programming of the piece in the Old Vic’s in-the-round season further weakens the proceedings. In-the-round staging works best when characters keep moving not only to help sightlines, but to illuminate the changing aspects of character and drama. But “Complicit” consists of three people sitting discussing their unchanging point of view. As a result, a static play — almost all either reported speech or offstage action — is made to look even more inert.
Sutton clearly believes that withholding information — allowing for predictable last-minute twists — is an adequate replacement for subtext. His cast proves otherwise.
Stuck though he is displaying a dilemma not a developing character, Dreyfuss looks bright and alert on the video but onstage he’s unfocused and far too generalized. Shambling about Rob Howell’s glass-floored, empty set in a shabby cardigan, he’s best at conveying Ben’s mounting angst.
But Dreyfuss’ performance is solipsistic, as if waiting for a close-up rather than listening to or energizing his dialogue with the other actors. This may also be due to the visible ear-piece he is wearing to feed him lines when necessary.
Suchet, by contrast, makes the most of his cliched dialogue by being as crisp and direct as possible.
McGovern is faced with nothing to do but ask a series of imploring repeated questions, many in fearfully undramatic cell phone calls to Suchet standing close-by. She switches between looking exasperated and — fatally in Dreyfuss’ heart-of-the-matter meltdown — bored. Her character may indeed have heard all this before, but if the actress signals this is truly tiresome, why should the audience bother paying attention?