Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey has begun his tenure as artistic director of London's Old Vic theatre with a black comedy by a Dutch playwright who is virtually unknown outside her home country.
By Neil Smith
BBC News Online
There is a scene in Cloaca in which avant garde theatre director Maarten (Neil Pearson) asks: "What's this play actually about?"
The male characters in Cloaca are played by British television actors
He is talking rhetorically about one of his own productions, but the question will no doubt be raised by audiences who attend the first, curiously titled play of Kevin Spacey's reign at the Old Vic.
Well, it's about male friendship, and the fissures and fractures that build up in those friendships over time.
It's also about their relationships with the women in their lives and their failure to understand what makes them tick.
The title means sewer in Latin, so you could also say it is about the effluent and detritus of modern life.
But if you are asking this writer what Cloaca is about, he'd say it's about two-and-a-half hours of the most tedious drivel ever flushed up on a London stage.
The setting is a swish Amsterdam loft apartment owned by gay civil servant Pieter (Stephen Tompkinson).
You wonder how this humble bureaucrat can afford such a swanky residence, and author Maria Goos soon provides the answer.
It turns out that Pieter has helped himself to eight neglected paintings from his department's vaults - artwork that has since quadrupled in value.
Unfortunately his employers want the pieces back - which is a problem, as Pieter has flogged four of them to the highest bidder.
The Old Vic theatre is one of the capital's most historic venues
Assembling three friends from college, Pieter explains his predicament. Alas, they all have troubles of their own.
Ambitious politician Jan (Hugh Bonneville) has one eye on a cabinet position and the other on his failing marriage, while Tom (Adrian Lukis) is a disbarred lawyer fresh out of rehab.
Maarten, meanwhile, has romantic hassles stemming from an illicit fling with Jan's teenage daughter.
They are a sorry bunch all told, prone to maudlin self-pity, depression and ugly misogyny.
The latter comes to the fore in their treatment of a Russian prostitute (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) hired to strip for Jan on his birthday.
But their behaviour might be tolerable had Goos used it to mine fresh insight into the male psyche and the crushing disappointments of middle-age.
Alas, the real disappointment will be felt by those audience members who attend Cloaca expecting a theatrical event.
And while Spacey's direction inspires impressive performances from Bonneville and Pearson, you can't help feeling something fundamental has been lost in translation.
Time will tell if Cloaca is the shape of things to come at the Old Vic or merely an embarrassing aberration.
What cannot be denied is Spacey's much-vaunted regime at this historic south London venue has got off to the shakiest of starts.
Cloaca runs at the Old Vic until 11 December.