A Little Off Base: Actor keeps stage adaptation of “Swimming with Sharks” afloat by infesting it with his charm
LONDON — Buddy Ackerman doesn’t care about producing good movies.
He knows how to make millions on gore and sex cinema. And scream indiscriminately. And multi-task. And womanize.
All is essentially perfect in Ackerman’s twisted Hollywood executive world until the studio chieftain delivers an ultimatum: Make a wholesome film or lose his shot at this newly vacated position of president of production.
Enter Guy, Ackerman’s fresh-from-film-school personal assistant. He’s got the right mix of gumption, congeniality and inexperience, as well as an intimate tie to aspiring agent/producer, Dawn, and her next big script: “The Afghani Incident.”
That’s the central story of “Swimming with Sharks,” a roughly two-hour, two-set play now showing at the Vaudeville Theatre on London’s Strand. The play is a remake of a 1994 film staring Kevin Spacey as the obnoxiously self-obsessed, proudly bellicose producer whose charisma is surpassed only by his cunning.
In this stage version, Christian Slater re-invents the role of Ackerman, fusing his trademark brash but sardonic delivery with a more contemporary tone. Slater is called on to carry the play due to the weaker performances of supporting actors.
In particular, Matt Smith, who plays Guy, seems routinely out of place and often a second too late with delivery despite the fact the play has been running for more than a month.
Guy’s failure to convince that he really is a good person who can’t help be tainted by working alongside the ruthless Ackerman leaves the audience without a protagonist to connect with or to root for, let alone become emotionally attached to.
Instead, the play revolves around three characters who grow more bitter, more entrenched and less endearing as the story evolves until Guy finally snaps, takes his boss hostage and engages in a spectacle of poolside torture.
The torture scene is where Slater shines brightest, begging for mercy one moment and imploring Guy to deliver a quick death the next.
But Dawn, played by Helen Baxendale, interrupts the torture session moments before the lights go dark and it’s unclear if it’s her or Buddy who takes the single gunshot that echoes through the theater.
The play ends, predictably, right where it began, only with Guy supplanting Ackerman as the next up- and-coming hot-shot executive while another eager beaver recent college grad arrives full of vigor and ignorance to the perils that lie ahead.
The play is less than sensational, but far from disappointing.
Slater, recognizable from films roles such as a radio revolutionary, a homicidal teenager, a star-crossed lover or an Old West outlaw, excels on stage. His passion, energy and sheer enthusiasm for the craft and the role make the performance worthwhile.
Here’s a tip: Guests who arrive in the final moments before show time can score front-row seats for the cheapest rate of 20 pounds per ticket. They are only sold at the window, so it’s worth a try if you walk up.