"I suppose it just depends on what your priorities are," says the artistic director of London's Old Vic Theatre — that two-time Oscar-winning, one-time Tony-winning, sometime movie-starring American actor named Kevin Spacey. "My priorities changed in the year 2000. For a long time, I was focused on my own personal career, but I got to a point where I no longer cared about that. I wanted to do something outside of myself, bigger than myself, that would — as I see every day at the Old Vic — affect people's lives."
A room at the top of the Old Vic affords him just such a selfless out-of-Spacey view. It has momentarily killed the klieg lights (or at least put them on the back burner) so he can better concentrate on pulling patrons back to one of England's most prestigious theatres.
He has been at it for three years, and the Old Vic has started to rise like a phoenix to its former glory days when Olivier and Gielgud toiled with double-dip distinction. Spacey, now having something to show for his labor, has begun to go global with his good works.
Exhibit A — a repertory spin of Shakespeare (The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night, directed by Rose Rage’s Edward Hall, son of Sir Peter) — ended its world tour at BAM on April Fool's Day. Exhibit B opens a week and a day later, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre: the fifth Broadway rising of A Moon for the Misbegotten, Eugene O'Neill's fraternal epitaph. This is the revitalized Old Vic's most commercially successful and critically cheered show to date, no small thanks to the fact that its artistic director hired himself for the lead, James Tyrone Jr. — a role he played opposite Jack Lemmon in 1986's Long Day's Journey Into Night. The old shoe still fit and won raves, as directed by Howard Davies, who in 1999 steered Spacey through his last Broadway brush with O'Neill, The Iceman Cometh.
Almost 13 years separate the two plays, but Jim has stayed on his alcoholic, self-destructive course and is now reeling toward his last reel. Compassionately, the author has provided this fictional facsimile of his elder brother with a redemptive affair at the end of the line — although it hardly starts out that way: Rough-hewn Josie Hogan (Eve Best) and her tenant-farmer dad (Colm Meaney) conspire to compromise and blackmail Jim, their landlord, to keep him from selling their pig farm out from under them, but the tables gradually and gently turn on them during this long night's journey into day.
"If you view this as a real event, [O'Neill’s brother] Jamie died 11 months later in a hotel room of cerebral apoplexy — in his sleep, which was what his dream was," says Spacey. "It's interesting to me why O'Neill wrote Moon. I think, after Long Day's Journey, he always felt he'd not treated his brother well, so he wrote Moon as a search for an understanding. What's remarkable about the play is you really do reach an understanding of him, why he drinks, what his demons are. It's about two people who love each other and should be together but just can't quite make it. That's what makes it a tragedy — that, in the end, they can't."
Did the fact that Spacey performed Jim's "backstory" help him with the character now? One has to ask. "It's a funny thing: It's hard to know. I did Jamie Tyrone so early on — I was 26 — and I look back on it now and think I didn't know as much then as I do now — about theatre and about life. I'm glad I did Iceman in between. There's so much of Jamie in Hickey. O'Neill used to talk about it. Now there's this chance to return to this glorious writer who had a way of writing about characters who were so personal to him — without any judgment. He just writes them, flaws and all, and lets you make up your own mind."
What did help his performance was having Eve Best for a starring/sparring partner. "I knew it was a great idea when I saw her last year do Hedda Gabler. She subsequently won the Olivier for Best Actress — and she was nominated this year for Moon, as was Colm. What she does in this performance is staggering. Stage chemistry is not something you can manufacture. We immediately liked each other, trusted each other, realized what O'Neill demands of actors in this play. We just joined hands and said, 'We're going to get there, and we're going to get there every night.' And we have. This relationship with Eve is one of the most remarkable living experiences I have ever had in the theatre."
Best is quick to return the compliment: "Kevin's unbelievable — the most generous and exhilarating actor that I have worked with. I feel so safe with him and, at the same time, so dangerous — which, of course, is the most perfect combination for two actors to have."
The achingly poignant scene when Josie cradles the life-ravaged Jim in her strong arms is classic theatre. "An amazing scene," Best admits. "Just two people talking, and it lasts nearly an hour. You can't believe, by the time you reach the end of it, what you've been through. That scene is like two heavyweights in a ring. You hope to be with a fighter you respect so you know in his hands you're completely safe and you're not going to fall and break your leg — and, at the same time, he'll give you a real fight. That's what it is like with Kevin."
Jason Robards is the only other actor to play both Jamies — and Hickey, and when Spacey cites the O'Neill he hopes to do, it's roles Robards got to first (Hughie and A Touch of the Poet). "Jason and I had a remarkable connection, not just as friends and O'Neill lovers. We had the same birthday. I would call him on July 26 and sing 'Happy Birthday to Us.'
"It's so exciting that plays continue to live through the eyes and minds and interpretive powers of different artists. That's why these plays go on and on — and should go on. You can always discover them as new works because someone else has a different take."