Richard Dreyfuss, Elizabeth McGovern, and David Suchet star in Joe Sutton’s ire-filled and tensely performed harangue about a journalist being asked to name an anonymous source.

Elizabeth McGovern, David Suchet,and Richard Dreyfuss in Complicit
(© Alastair Muir)
Elizabeth McGovern, David Suchet,
and Richard Dreyfuss in Complicit
(© Alastair Muir)

Joe Sutton is mad as heck and he’s not going to take it anymore. So he’s written Complicit, a high-voltage tirade about the course of American political policy post-9/11, now at the Old Vic under Kevin Spacey’s direction. The 85-minute result is a tensely-performed reminder that soapbox harangues may make loud and insistent theater, but they aren’t guaranteed to be effective or even readily graspable.

Spacey sets the piece in the pressure-cooker round and under suspended television monitors, with the focus — and the video camera — on investigative reporter Ben Kritzer (Richard Dreyfuss), who has written a book condemning Abu Ghraib-and-elsewhere torture partially based on information provided him by a government source he’s now been asked to disclose to a grand jury. Kritzer’s refusal to name the name could land him in jail, which is troubling news to his wife Judith Brown (Elizabeth McGovern), who’s concerned about the future of her marriage and children should Ben be jailed for contempt of court.

Ben, whose journalistic ethics have been shaped early by an editor of impeccable integrity, is steadfastly convinced that in revealing his source, he’d betray himself and his beloved profession. He’s also wedded to the notion that his underlying purpose in preparing the controversial book was to repair the damage he did when, immediately following the Twin Towers attack, he wrote an opinion column favoring low-level torture. Kritzer’s probity, however, is undermining the strategy planned by lawyer Roger Cowan (David Suchet), who is trying every within-the-letter-of-the-law angle he can to keep his client and friend from landing in the pokey.

All of this is only some of what Sutton lobs at an information-swamped audience as he goes about venting his ire. He presents his three charged characters ricocheting within a tight circular nucleus — not unlike the trio in Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen — but he’s given them only limited opportunity to express themselves other than through heightened-decibel argument. Indeed, he hands both Kritzer and Cowan attenuated if heartfelt speeches about, respectively, love of country and the unexpected need to defend freedom of speech.

But scanted in Sutton’s scheme is the Kritzer-Brown marriage and why Judy seems much younger than Ben. Is it a second marriage for him? Was she a student of his when perhaps he taught a journalism course? How old are the offspring? Less importantly, why do the two address each other by name in almost every exchange?

Spacey — with the help of designer Rob Howell — smartly keeps his players on the move to hold off allegations of a debate disguised. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t allow Dreyfuss, a superb naturalistic actor, much chance to do anything but fulminate and crumble weepily. In her underwritten role, McGovern is either ranting or asked to listen quietly; while Suchet, playing a man whose motives are complex, fares best. But in the end, it’s not so much Kritzer who’s been complicit in his actions, but Spacey and his cast who have been rendered complicit by association with flaunting Sutton’s uncontrolled fury.

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Closed: February 21, 2009