Forty-one years ago, National Anthems began gestating as a one-act student play. Seventeen years ago, actor Kevin Spacey first encountered it in its present form when he appeared in a production at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre in 1988. Now it arrives at the Old Vic, trailing both a long history and high expectations for its highest-profile outing yet.
Spacey may have been smart to cling on to the rights for the bravura star turn it affords him at the play’s centre. The pity is that playwright Dennis McIntyre has only had his ambitions for it realised from beyond the grave. In the 26 years between beginning its writing and his death, aged 47, in 1990, McIntyre saw National Anthems performed in endless readings, workshops and regional US productions – the inevitable fate of much “new” American drama that gets workshopped to death.
In the process, however, some of the play's freshness and spontaneity may well have dissipated. It's no fault of the playwright - or of Spacey’s dogged perseverance in returning to the piece to at last make his acting debut at the Waterloo theatre since taking over the artistic reins there - that it doesn’t entirely live up to the hype or hopes that are now being trailed in its wake.
What is in essence a taut little fringe play that might have read more powerfully in the close-up intimacy of, say, the Donmar Warehouse, feels a little lost and unduly inflated to fill the large stage and auditorium of the Old Vic.
Here, the upwardly mobile suburban aspirations of a lawyer and his teacher wife, who have recently moved into the Detroit suburb of Birmingham, are played off against those of a neighbour, making an unannounced visit. As their hollow, materialistic values are exposed – their furniture is on order from Italy, the sound system has come from Denmark, and the car on lease is a BMW but the husband is toying with a Porsche - their encounter with their mysterious blue-collar neighbour quickly descends into an inevitable clash of values.
While McIntyre’s play and David Grindley’s production of it feels stagey and contrived, it's nevertheless propelled by a trio of strong performances. Spacey is edgily brilliant as the neighbour, while Mary Stuart Masterson and Steven Weber are compulsively watchable as the couple facing a long night’s reckoning.