“The Vertical Hour” is pretentious political theater

Bill Nighy a standout in a flawed play about liberals and morality

By Lucy Komisar

David Hare has written some very good political plays, among them “Stuff Happens,” which follows the Bush Administration decision-making that led to the invasion of Iraq. He appears to have dashed off “The Vertical Hour” as a comment on the American character, particularly the character of American liberals in the light of that war. He should have written an Op Ed.

This play, aside from a few interesting nuggets of ideas, is a sloppy combination of sitcom and pop-film-style male-female sparring that divests it of credibility. The only reason to see it is the astonishing and subtle performance of Bill Nighy as the doctor who has left London to live in the country for a reason has to do with his own moral failings. Nighy so effortlessly plays the role of Oliver Lucas, that you feel he could do it while also cooking up a meal, which in fact his character does. Nighy has intriguing body language and an utterly charming demeanor.

The play starts out with Nadia Blye (Julianne Moore), an instructor at a college in northern California (liberal land) meeting with a student. The young man (Dan Bittner) defends capitalism and American power. He thinks the study of international relations is silly; his focus is business. America wins; it always wins. You could say it‘s an empire going to fall, but not in his life time. Why did David Hare do this? If you want to posit a premise, that this is what “America” thinks, why have some unwashed college student say it to a professor whom he confesses he is hot for? She informs him that, “The purpose of women talking about politics is not to turn men on.” At that cartoonish point, an intermission might have emptied out the theater.

An immediate problem for the production is Julianne Moore. With long straight reddish hair that makes her appear more a coed than a professor, she is playing the role for TV or the movies. She has no stage presence; she lacks gravitas. Director Sam Mendes must have been comfortable with Nighy, but perhaps he didn‘t know what to do with Moore. Or maybe he just gave up.

Scene two, Nadia and Philip (Andrew Scott), Oliver‘s son, arrive in Shropshire to visit him. Philip is a physical trainer who has resented his father since he discovered his unfaithfulness, which devastated the boy‘s mother. So he moved to America.

Nadia is a believer in progress. She was a war reporter in the Balkans. (Is Nadia Blye a veiled reference to the intrepid American journalist Nellie Bly, 1867-1922?) She has a litany of political complaints. The Balkans tour made her cynical and angry at society‘s readiness to ignore suffering. She is frustrated at writing about things when nobody cares. She doesn‘t like the confidence of the monied class. She learned as a young girl that half the world lives on $2 a day and wonders why people didn‘t talk about that. There was more terrorism in the 1980s than today, she points out. Also, “terrorism is the wrong answer to the right question: modernity.” She makes these profound statements as she, Oliver and Philip sit under a very large tree. The tree of knowledge?

What ever happened to subtlety, to making points in a way that doesn‘t just announce, “Hey, this is the point I want to make.”? This is a play, remember, not a stump speech at Hyde Park. Part of the problem, is that her pronouncements never lead to conversation. Oliver never seems to take them or her seriously. (A little sexism here?)

We learn some of Hare‘s peeves about the American character. Philip declares that Americans think what‘s more important is how you feel. He says, “A man drops dead on the street. The first thing they say is how ˜did that make you feel?‘” First of all, that is nonsense. Second, is caring about feeling altogether bad? After all, Philip is there to remind us what is wrong about Oliver‘s character, about how that made him feel.

The conversation gets interesting only when Oliver becomes the questioner. Here is Hare talking. He expresses his concerns about materialism and war, about politicians exploiting ancient hatreds. He gets some clever lines: “Politicians don‘t speak words, they use them.” But the most of the dialogue is as pretentious as the title, which refers to the time after a combat catastrophe in which a doctor can be of use. What is that supposed to mean? The time when citizens can be of use?

There have been intellectual plays built around conversation and argument about morality. Copenhagen by Michael Frayn is a good example. But if Hare is trying to suggest the difficulty of assigning moral worth and blame, the result here is merely confusion. Who is good and who is bad? People who don‘t protest about killing or hunger? Nadia who went to a Bush White House meeting because she thought she could have an effect – or maybe she was just thrilled to be asked? Oliver who has “good” anti-war politics, but cheated on his wife?

The issue Hare seems to tiptoe up to and then around is personal morality. Oliver is against the war, but he is a womanizer. The political argument morphs into “will he or will he not bed her?” At a middle-of-the-night conversation   deux under the tree, Nadia starts chug-a-lugging Chardonnay! The audience groaned at Oliver telling her that she seems to be “a woman who‘s been badly hurt.” Such a cliché!

Nadia is no match for Oliver. He seems to be putting her on. This is not a fair fight. Director Mendes could have made her seem a little less stupid. Too bad, in fact, that Oliver didn‘t have someone who could match him in wit. I think of Kate Hepburn or Vanessa Redgrave. Now, Redgrave could defend political ideas a lot more credibly than Julianne Moore.

“The Vertical Hour.” Written by David Hare. Directed by Sam Mendes. Sets by Scott Pask. Starring Bill Nighy, Julianne Moore, Andrew Scott, Dan Bittner, Rutina Wesley.

Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St. Tue-Sat 8pm; Wed & Sat 2pm; Sun 3pm. $76.25-$96.25. 212-239-6200.

Photos by Paul Kolnik.

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