New York City Theater
"The Vertical Hour"
Music Box Theater
“I’d known for a long time that I was going to have an accident,” says Bill Nighy as Dr. Oliver Lucas in the first moments of David Hare’s intermittently intriguing “The Vertical Hour.” Hare, the political British playwright whose “Stuff Happens” excoriated the Bush administration earlier this season, here writes about people caught in the vortex of the unpopular Iraq War.
The title comes from that 60 minutes after an accident (or, in this case, the invasion) “when you can actually be of some use after violence” and something can be done to help its victims. Giving the devil his due, Hare says that, even assuming countries went into the war for good reasons, they had only a short time to repair damage – and they blew it. “In the United States, you’re building an empire,” says Oliver. “Remember, we’ve dismantled one.”
Hare’s main character is not Oliver Lucas, however, but Nadia Blye, an American. Disillusioned, Blye has retreated to Yale’s ivory tower to become a poli-sci professor confronted by students who challenge her take on the world. She’s also challenged by Oliver, the father of her fiancé Philip. In the evening’s strongest scene, with its hints of seductions-to-come, Oliver makes her re-examine what he, from his lofty European height, claims is her idealistic naiveté. (Considering that Britain is a full partner in the conflict, the assumption is questionable.)
Nighy has received much praise for his mannered doctor. But if effective acting consists in constant fidgeting and stealing focus, then Nighy is a master. That he forcefully portrays man impossible to pin down, a man more unsure of himself than his surface suggests, is undeniable. But anyone who’d let this eccentric physician actually operate on him would be mad.
As for Julianne Moore, a fine film actress, for a number of reasons she has trouble conveying the banked fires of a former war correspondent once so dedicated to countering the world’s indifference that she would sacrifice her personal happiness. The character is filled with passion, but Moore fails to convince as a woman of strength, even of strength deferred. “I’m interested in the art of settling differences,” she says, but her journey to enlightenment is a jolt.
Yet, all is not lost: Moore is not doing a personal appearance stint; her characterization is plausible and she has several luminous emotional moments that make you wish to see her on stage again.
Good director Sam Mendes also struggles. His work here is more a set-up for drama than actual drama itself. The part of Philip seems like an afterthought, which is too bad since Andrew Scott brings freshness to it.
In the past, Hare has created more feisty heroines, as in the superior “Amy’s View,” “Plenty” and “Skylight.” In “Vertical Hour,” perhaps blinded by a war policy he detests, he doesn’t blend character with theme. Brian MacDevitt’s beautiful lighting design is more illuminating than Hare’s play, no matter what the audience’s politics.
-- David A. Rosenberg
Dec. 24, 2006