Does no one here have any concept of national loyalty?” asks the American heroine of David Hare’s 2006 play, about her boyfriend’s native England. That doubted — and in this case misplaced — quality must certainly be what motivated London’s Royal Court Theater to mount its own staging of “The Vertical Hour,” a year after the play’s world premiere closed prematurely on Broadway. Though widely considered England’s most important (and certainly most prolific) contemporary playwright, Hare here indulges a tendency to make characters mouthpieces for political points of view and to mingle public and private in less-than-coherent ways.
The play is Hare’s attempt to understand the position of liberals who support the Iraq war, providing an intimate companion piece to his large-scale, semi-verbatim “Stuff Happens.” “The Vertical Hour” illustrates its central theme — the contrast between those who throw themselves fully behind their beliefs and those who step away from conflict — via the meeting of two strong personalities. Nadia Blye is a celebrity war correspondent-turned-Yale prof who believes humanitarian reasons justified the “liberation” of Iraq; Oliver Lucas is her boyfriend Philip’s father, a famous physician now living in solitude on the Welsh borders for tragic reasons that are eventually revealed.
Broadway critics, while mixed on Hare’s script, agreed on the eccentric, charismatic brilliance of Bill Nighy’s performance as Oliver, but here the character works to opposite effect. Anton Lesser plays Oliver as innocuous, introspective and mildly ill-tempered — a cardigan-wearing Englishman-next-door whose low-key manner does not provide the heightened platform for debate to which Hare seems to be aspiring.
Indira Varma (HBO’s “Rome”) offers a spirited attempt to make sense of Nadia (played by Julianne Moore on Broadway), but Hare has burdened the role with too many idealized contradictions. Tough yet vulnerable, driven yet haunted, fiercely intelligent yet riven with carnal passions, apparently irresistible to every man she meets (including, in the play’s cringingly implausible opening scene, a raving capitalist undergraduate): This is a man’s fantasy of a woman, not a real person.
It may be an attempt to make sense of the character’s artificialities that makes Varma seem, at first, like a TV pundit in perennial “on” mode. She relaxes considerably into the role in her extended dialogues with Oliver. It is as these scenes wear on, however, that the character completely loses credibility, crumpling instantly when Oliver finally argues the antiwar position: “We certainly made a mess of it, didn’t we?” is all she can manage. Are audiences really intended to believe someone who has made a career out of her political convictions has really never considered the other side of this argument?
Things take a further turn towards incoherence when Nadia then confides in Oliver her deepest personal secrets, and we later discover that this night of truth-telling leads her to alter the course of her life. Particularly because Oliver comes across as a weak and bullying figure, it’s hard to make sense of what causes Nadia to gravitate toward him — other than the fact that he’s the author’s mouthpiece.
The evening’s most interesting performance, unexpectedly, comes from Tom Riley, who imbues with pathos and humor Philip’s attempts to mediate between the two most important people in his life. But fundamental questions of plausibility weaken his character: if he’s so convinced his father is a serial-womanizing liar, why does he bring his beautiful, ambitious girlfriend halfway around the world to meet him? (Because otherwise there would be no play, of course).
Jeremy Herrin’s production is tastefully restrained. Action takes place before a spare, blank backdrop (designed by Mike Britton) against which lighting designer Howard Harrison indicates changes of locale and time of day by shifting tones of blue and yellow. A revolve further smoothes transitions between scenes, as does Nick Powell’s subtle soundscape of birdsong and other outdoor noises.
But nothing can disguise the increasingly deafening sound of dramaturgical gears grinding as the play struggles toward its sudden yet predictable ending.