Trevor Nunn is directing “Inherit the Wind” — I didn’t know it was a musical. That was the gag among insiders predicting vast amounts of sets, songs, choruses and a punishing running time for the Old Vic revival. Turns out they were wrong… but only about the running time. Star turns from Kevin Spacey and David Troughton, company hymn-singing, 23 adult actors, 17 extras, 6 children and a real-live monkey give value for money. But they can’t disguise the carpentry beneath this classic courtroom drama.

Nunn argues in the program that this is a very good time to revive Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s play. Creationism is rampant in the U.S. and it’s 200 years since Darwin’s birth and 150 years since the publication of the “Origin of the Species,” the book that triggered the 1925 Scopes monkey trial, a small-town brouhaha that became a national scandal.

But has there ever been a bad time? The 2007 Broadway revival had no anniversaries to piggy-back upon but everyone saluted its astute timing. Even at its 1955 premiere the play was considered a pertinent attack on the prevailing fundamentalist thinking underpinning McCarthyism.

Urgent though the arguments remain, this is a courtoom drama in which the argument is utterly stacked. So, in the unequal battle between rational thought vs. stifling conservatism, there are no prizes for guessing which role Old Vic a.d. Spacey is playing.

Having already played Clarence Darrow in a 1991 TV movie, Spacey hits the ground running as Henry Drummond, the defense counsel modelled on Darrow. His client, Bertram Cates (Sam Phillips), has been locked up for presenting Darwin’s scientific views to schoolchildren.

Padding himself for increased girth and adopting a round-shouldered stoop beneath a white wig, Spacey tilts his spine to shift his body’s center of gravity. Being slightly hunched cunningly accentuates the angle of his head, making him appear unusually watchful.

His razor-sharp timing remains flawless, but although technically superb, Spacey’s performance feels like a repeat. Once again he displays panther-like stealth, prowling the stage while drenching as many lines as possible in withering sarcasm. In soliciting audience approval he only just stops short of raising a single complicit eyebrow, a procedure accentuated by Nunn’s placement of two jury members in the front row of the auditorium, thus affording his protagonists every excuse to play out front.

Troughton’s bigoted religious zealot, Matthew Harrison Brady, is more of a surprise. With his chest puffed out, Troughton gives Brady not only bombast and zeal but comic swagger. Constantly mopping sweat from his brow, he conveys a man who literally overheats himself on the fire of his misguided self-belief.

Yet for all the leads’ detailed work, the scale of their performances means they might as well bear signs marked “good guy” and “bad guy,” robbing the action of tension.

Sonya Cassidy is quietly impressive as the accused’s girlfriend, discovering the difficult rewards of thinking for herself. And as opportunistic journalist Hornbeck, a gleaming Mark Dexter even outdoes Spacey in superciliousness.

Rob Howell’s cramped wooden courtroom set is a contrast to the opening scenes in the vast space he creates by extending action from the very back of the deep stage to an added forestage. Nunn crams the added depth with townsfolk, but these literal crowd scenes of provincial life feel surplus to requirements.

Tables groan with food, clumps of ideally dressed people wave banners and sing Early American hymns. They add detail but little else beyond slowing everything down. As a result, by the time the court scenes get going, the mood needs cranking up. The result is a drama that’s not properly balanced.

Inherit the Wind

The Old Vic, London; 1,003 seats; £48.50 $77 top

  • Production: An Old Vic Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Directed by Trevor Nunn.
  • Crew: Sets, Rob Howell; costumes, Howell and Irene Bohan; lighting, Howard Harrison; sound, Fergus O'Hare; music supervisor, Steven Edis; production stage manager, Katy De Main. Opened, Oct. 1, 2009. Reviewed Oct. 2. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.
  • Cast: Matthew Harrison Brady - David Troughton Henry Drummond - Kevin Spacey Bertram Cates - Sam Phillips E.K. Hornbeck - Mark Dexter Rachel Brown - Sonya Cassidy Rev. Jeremiah Brown - Ken Bones Judge - Nicholas Jones <b>With:</b> Paris Arrowsmith, Paul Birchard, Adam Booth, David Burrows, Ian Conningham, Sam Cox, Mary Doherty, Branwell Donaghey, Janine Duvitski, Sarah Ingram, Sidney Livingstone, Simon Lee Phillips, Vincent Pirillo, Christopher Ragland, Susan Tracey, Janet Whiteside, Katie Buckholz, Imogen Byron, Elizabeth Carter, Branagh Crealock-Ashurst, Shea Davis, Richard Linell.