Let's not kid ourselves: Philip Barry's play is a fairly creaky comedy made glorious by its associations with the original film cast. But if you're gonna restage it, getting in the likes of Kevin Spacey as CK Dexter Haven certainly makes it worth doing.
I guess from my perspective seeing this after Death of a Salesman set the bar too high for any light comedy to jump. Funny, given that it was the thought of this great opportunity that had gotten Helen Lisette plotting membership of the Old Vic and access to tickets more than a year ago! Nevertheless, it would be churlish to focus on the negative: delivered at a lickerty-click pace appropriate to the momentum of the piece, The Philly Story draws its audience in beautifully. If this is Spacey on auto-pilot, then he knocks most performers dead at that speed: his arrival sets alight both the cast and audience and he plays to it with the confidence only possible in such an experienced actor.
True, the rhythm is rather damaged by the two intervals necessitated by the set shifts. This also makes the middle section of the play feel rather out-of sorts with the rest of the narrative. But the overall effect is one of warm pleasure, if not the unadulterated joy that was expected or demanded of Spacey's work at the Old Vic.
In terms of cast comments, let me offer these: overall the performances are well done, and (a good sign this) funny. Talulah Riley (what a great name!), in her debut as the younger sister Dinah, is hilarious even if she is given far too little to do after her initial flourish. Some have criticised the chemistry between Jennifer Ehle and Kevin Spacey as rather unconvincing. I think that a little harsh: the problem lies more with the dimensions of the inimitable KH for whom this was really structured and into whose shoes it would be hard to imagine any woman fitting. As such, Ehle works hard (but without it seeming to be an effort) to convey the mix of confident coolness and the coy irrepressible delight/frustration felt at CK Dexter Haven. That she does it as well as she does is a credit to her talents. For his part, Spacey brings a real nuanced sense of fun to his role, but again the difficulties largely lie with a script that relied too heavily on the unspoken and established characterisations drawn by the original actors (or at least that movie incarnation we are so familiar with). Personally, I thought it was a real privilege to see an actor of his calibre having such fun, cabable of conveying ridiculousness and inner thoughts with simple glances and gestures (as well as some comically over-stated ones).
Reviews have generally stood on this as a 2 or 3 star production. That's probably not utterly unfair, though I would lean to the higher end of the spectrum. And since Spacey is so often worth watching, for that alone it takes it to the higher ratings. At least 3 stars; 3.7 for the delight in seeing Spacey on stage.