After dealing directly in “Stuff Happens” with the buildup to war in Iraq, David Hare reflects on the intense self-examination prompted by it in “The Vertical Hour.” But while the 2004 play made grippingly contentious, impassioned theater out of public editorial fodder, this more private drama about personal and political responsibility is unfocused. Stuffed with stimulating insights, it’s never dull but ultimately feels as messy and unresolved as the conflict behind its central debate. Sam Mendes’ production does have one reason for unstinting recommendation, however, in Bill Nighy’s fascinatingly eccentric performance.
In addition to the natural anticipation surrounding a new work by a major playwright, attention has centered on Hare’s decision to skip the standard London route and premiere in New York. To further heighten interest, there’s also the return of Mendes, directing his first non-musical play on Broadway since Hare’s “The Blue Room” in 1998. Then there’s the belated Broadway debut of Julianne Moore. But that underwhelming element turns out to be among the frustrating production’s chief disappointments.
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A line or two of dialogue explains the title as a term used in combat medicine to indicate the period immediately after a trauma when aid can be effective. Hare is concerned here with the balance and objectivity required in assessing and responding to that need, whether it’s an individual intervention or a government stepping into an international hot zone. However, the employment of both title and metaphor seem unsupported in a play probably a few drafts away from being a satisfying work.
The characters played by Nighy and Moore in many ways are simply mouthpieces for opposing views on the war, with Moore’s character revealing the generally astute Hare as a Brit who may not fully understand the polarization of the American political scene at the time — something he had a better handle on in “Stuff Happens.” (Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” which closes the final scene, reflects the rather obvious duality the play is trying to draw.)
Resembling no character based in political reality, Nadia Blye (Moore) is a liberal-thinking former war correspondent-turned-political studies professor at Yale who advised Bush in favor of the invasion of Iraq. (She still calls it “the liberation.”)
Oliver Lucas (Nighy) is a nephrologist-turned-GP, an armchair idealist who lives in relative isolation in Shropshire on the Welsh borders. When Nadia comes for a weekend with her boyfriend and Oliver’s son, Philip (Andrew Scott), it’s clear the two strangers’ clashing agendas will cause friction.
Adding further kinks to the emotional triangle, Philip’s issues with his father surface, while Nadia begins to question her motives for being with Philip. She was drawn to him as a safe retreat from her volatile world. “I thought, if I just live quietly with Philip, then I’ll get my private life out of the way,” she says with diminishing conviction.
Without indulging too heavily in stereotypical generalizations, the playwright makes some sharp observations about the fundamental differences between the paternalistic patriotism of Americans and the jaded detachment of Brits. One country wants to trust its leaders while the other is innately skeptical of them. “In the United States, you’re building an empire,” Oliver tells Nadia. “Remember, we’ve dismantled one.”
Via Nadia, Hare advocates the necessity of involvement and the refusal of passivity. He warns against letting psychology rule principles and action. Laced with clever dialogue, the play makes lots of intriguing points on power, capitalism, materialism, imperialism and the big daddy of -isms: terrorism. The trouble is these notations never add up to a thematically cohesive point of view.
The principal set is a beautiful, minimalist rendering of Oliver’s lawn, dominated by a giant English oak tree and a wide-open sky on which Brian MacDevitt’s lighting paints the changing colors of day and night. Designer Scott Pask has deftly used an aperture device, with a black wall opening and closing like an iris on each scene. But that narrowed focus is exactly what’s missing from Hare’s writing and Mendes’ direction.
The interstitial direct-address scenes seem imposed and not at all integral to the text, while scenes that bookend the play, in which Nadia interviews students in her office at Yale, are too schematic, their function revealed didactically. Nadia’s closing line displays a heavy hand that’s perplexing, if not downright inexcusable, from a writer of Hare’s intelligence.
The artificiality of her role and its self-contradictory journey may be partly to blame, but Moore’s lack of stage technique is a problem, especially in the stodgy opening. A luminous screen performer capable of exquisitely naturalistic vulnerability — in “Far From Heaven,” for instance, or the Hare-scripted “The Hours” — she’s stiffly self-conscious here. Early on, it’s as if she’s trapped in a Loreal commercial, tilting her face into the light with an expression of beatific serenity that goes against the scene’s argumentative nature.
While Moore is at her best onscreen when her emotions are veiled, it’s when they surface here that she becomes more persuasive. In the over-extended scene that opens act two, as Nadia and Oliver overcome their initial animosity in a pre-dawn conversation, Mendes finally coaxes some complexity from her. Moore’s strongest moments are when she’s playing off Nighy, but the match is an uneven one.
Rock-star thin and with eyebrows possibly arched since birth, Nighy’s rangy physique and in particular his spindly legs are almost as expressive as his softly mocking eyes or droll delivery. His twitchy, loose-limbed body language is so controlled and precise that often he seems to be undermining Moore/Nadia with his feet alone.
Oliver opens up about his past but has no illuminating self-realization to equal Nadia’s. Yet in Nighy’s hands, he’s a far more complete, coherent character. The friction between him and his son (deftly played by Scott with a disarming mix of maturity, awkwardness and bottled anger straining beneath the sweet-natured surface) is consistently more involving than the main event.
If “The Vertical Hour” seems not destined to rank among Hare’s greater accomplishments, it at least has the merit of having brought Nighy’s bracing originality to the New York stage.