The Vertical Hour

  • Date:
    November 1, 2006
    Review by:
    Polly Wittenberg

    Review by Polly Wittenberg

    It�s a pretty good week for New York theater when new plays by two of the stalwarts of contemporary British drama�Tom Stoppard and David Hare�open here. Monday saw the opening of the first part of Stoppard�s sprawling trilogy The Coast of Utopia at the Beaumont. And last night there was a world premiere of The Vertical Hour, a new drama by the prolific Mr. Hare at the Music Box.

    It is interesting to compare the vastness and complexity of Stoppard�s work with the more narrow and contemporary focus of Hare's. It's not that Hare hasn't written trilogies. Indeed, about 15 years ago he wrote three separate plays called Racing Demon (religion), Murmuring Judges (law), and The Absence of War (politics), which together formed a trenchant examination of major institutions in post-Thatcher Britain.

    The Vertical Hour contains some incisive discussions of the causes and effects of the current Iraq war, but it's really a drama about personal choice. The protagonist Nadia (Julianne Moore making her Broadway debut) is a former journalist now serving as a professor at Yale. Most of the play�s action involves her trip with fianc� Philip Lucas (Andrew Scott), a physical therapist, to Shropshire in the English countryside to meet Philip�s eccentric and reclusive father Oliver (Bill Nighy). Your interest in the heart of the play will depend entirely on whether you buy the premise that the lessons learned by Oliver in his career as a doctor and as a serial womanizer are applicable to Nadia�s struggle to find meaning and peace in her life. Or whether, as Philip believes, the old man is just trying to seduce his son�s gorgeous intended.

    It's not a very original or deep dilemma, but Hare, these actors and the slick production directed by Sam Mendes provide a pleasant overlay of entertainment. Like Stoppard, Hare creates many witty lines. As when Dr. Oliver pontificates on the state of British medicine by saying �I knew who the surgeon was going to be, so I had a fair idea how the operation would go.� Or when he refers to Richard Nixon�s reaction upon to seeing the Great Wall of China.

    The sets by Scott Pask and the lighting by Brian MacDevitt, both of whom were also involved in the Beaumont production of The Coast of Utopia, are spare but evocative.

    The opportunity to see the flame-haired and sexy Ms. Moore on stage will draw crowds. For others, the primary interest in seeing The Vertical Hour should be the presence of the incredibly skinny and quirky Mr. Nighy. Everything he does and every movement he makes, whether it's the cadence of his line readings or the positioning of his body with rear-end facing the audience and hands jammed in pockets, is unique.

    Two further points: Although most of the action takes place in Shropshire, the opening and closing scenes of the play take place at Yale and involve tutorials between Nadia and graduate students. In both cases, the students seem to be far more interested in their sex lives than they are in discussing great ideas. Not too complimentary to the current crop of would-be intellectuals.

    Finally, I was curious as to exactly what the title, The Vertical Hour, refers to. At one point, about two thirds of the way through the play Oliver describes it as the moment after combat when you really want to understand. I'm still not sure what that means.

    A must for Bill Nighy fans.

    Polly Wittenberg

    Review by Barbara Mehlman

    The Ancient Greeks were probably the first known people to have used the theater for political purposes, and it's easy to see why. What better forum is there to make a point, or rally people to action than to dramatize what you believe? Aristophanes did it through comedy, David Hare, some 2500 years later in "The Vertical Hour," chose didacticism (though I suspect, as an accomplished dramatist, he would have preferred to be entertaining as well).

    The British Hare has written many political plays since his days in Cambridge, his most successful being "Plenty," a story about a woman who served in the French Resistance during World War II but finds herself disillusioned by post-war Britain.

    His most recent political entry is "The Vertical Hour" in which he takes on a very pressing political issue -- the Iraq War. The play is an impassioned plea for us to end the violence, but a mediocre script sabotages his message until the end, when it is exuberantly revived.

    But the script is only part of the problem. The other part is the usually excellent Julianne Moore playing Nadia Blye. Nadia is a former war correspondent turned Yale professor, but she's no Christiane Amanpour.

    Amanpour has gravitas. When she reports on CNN, you believe and respect her. Nadia has no such aura, one because the speeches she's given have neither depth nor substance, and two, because Moore just doesn't radiate intelligence. We're talking here gritty war correspondent who's been in the trenches in Bosnia; and brainy Yale prof. But no grit or brains comes through in her performance. She's as vanilla as they come.

    It's Bill Nighy as Oliver, her future father-in-law, who walks away with this play. I always think that actors with British accents always sound smart, but with Nighy, it's also because he's a consummate stage actor who knows how to create a character.

    In the first act, which is very weak, Moore just stands there and talks, not knowing what to do with herself (think Julia Roberts in "Three Days of Rain.") Nighy, on the other hand, is all full of physical mannerisms and speech quirks which, when put together, create a real person. He is a joy to watch and he also has the best lines.

    The second act picks up significantly when Nadia and Oliver go at it over Iraq and Nadia asks Oliver, who's a physician, if he had been against the war from the beginning. Oliver replies that "I knew the surgeon so I was certain the operation wouldn't go well." Would that Nadia had been given some of those same terrific lines.

    In the end, what Hare wants is for us to do something about stopping the war. Be moved to action, speak out, be brave and courageous and take a stand. Don't just sit by helplessly as if we have no power. And given the results of the 2006 elections this past November, I'd say that's exactly what the American voters did.

    But if this is what Hare had hoped for, then why the distracting and muddled subplot involving Nadia's fianc�, Philip, and his father? Philip has a poor relationship with Oliver, and believes that he was responsible for his mother's misery. He also is convinced that the charming man was coming on to Nadia as well. But this bit of father-son conflict never gets played out in any satisfactory way because the war message is what Hare wants us to take with us when the curtain descends.

    The epilogue at the end ties all the loose ends up very neatly, but all I could think about was that I wished Amanpour or Allison Janney (C. J. Cregg on "The West Wing") had played Nadia. It would have been a better production.

    Barbara Mehlman

    What the press had to say.....

    BEN BRANTLEY of the NEW YORK TIMES: �Feels like a musty throwback to the psychological puzzle plays of the 1950s, which translated the dynamic of the analyst�s couch into theatrical confrontation and revelation." & "Without Mr. Nighy, 'The Vertical Hour' would be heavy sledding. First of all, there�s the magnetic physicality of his performance: the battery of restless tics and gestures that belie Oliver�s air of wry understatement; his tendency to treat his towering toothpick frame as if he were his own perpetually on-call masseur; his way of letting his limbs and fingers spring out at cutting angles, like the blades of a Swiss Army knife. This isn�t just window dressing. The uneasy mannerisms suggest an inveterate physician, troubled by conscience and a sense of the fragility of life, forever taking inventory of his body. Mr. Nighy turns simply listening into a compulsively watchable activity." & You might be interested to know that in the script of 'The Vertical Hour,' Mr. Hare characterizes Oliver as �undemonstrative.� We can only be grateful that Mr. Nighy chose to ignore this adjective in shaping one of the most vibrant portraits to be seen on a New York stage."

    JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ of the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: "David Hare knows how to wring drama out of current events and how to push buttons." & "Thoughtful, often exhilarating and beautifully staged production." & "Nadia is among Hare's most complex creations - brilliant, passionate, strong, fragile and ambivalent; a reporter, teacher and mediator. She has seen too much tragedy and has seen others do too little about it. It's a lot to pull off, and Moore gets off to a tentative start, but goes on to give a richly layered, heartfelt and feisty performance. Helping her achieve all this is a fantastic cast. English actor Nighy, famous recently as the squid-faced villain in "The Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" - is fascinating from start to finish. He plays the cynical and caustic Oliver with so many body-language quirks, so much intelligence and sly humor that it's almost impossible to tear your gaze from him."

    CLIVE BARNES of THE NEW YORK POST: "Not only is it one of the best plays Broadway has seen in years, but Sam Mendes has staged it with exquisite skill, allowing the main actors to play like a well-honed musical trio." & "Nighy steals everything on the stage that hasn't actually been nailed down by the script. He has made eccentricity a way of acting. His louche, disreputable manner, summed up in a charming vocal sneer and defensive smile, is delivered with a panache that disguises the sheer technique under it. He is, of course, wonderful. Then again, anyone who's seen him in film or onstage in London expects nothing less. "

    MICHAEL SOMMERS of STAR-LEDGER: "Viewers attracted to 'The Vertical Hour' by the allure of Julianne Moore in her Broadway bow may not find themselves so well entertained by either the star or David Hare's new drama." & " 'The Vertical Hour' is a talky, tiresome effort by the distinguished British author of "Stuff Happens" and "The Secret Rapture," among many worthy plays." & "Hard as Hare strives to give his characters compelling histories, they rarely come to life. Questionable acting doesn't help. All auburn hair and porcelain skin, Moore's wistful personal charm suits Nadia's pensive side, but her subdued performance needs to be energized. Opposite Moore's constrained physicality, the men offer lots of fancy-dancy British technique. Revolving wrists, elaborate gesticulations, expressive stares into the distance. The lanky, elegant Nighy is especially charming at it. Director Sam Mendes (Broadway's last "Cabaret" and "Gypsy" revivals) flatly stages this chatfest with a purple summer night that occasionally matches Hare's patchy writing."

    ELYSA GARDNER of USATODAY: "The problem with this production, directed with a light, sure hand by Sam Mendes, is that the actors cast as Nadia and Oliver are not equals. Julianne Moore, the luminous leading lady known for her vibrant work in The Hours and many other films, isn't a stranger to the stage. But in this Broadway debut, she can seem strained and self-conscious." & "In contrast, Bill Nighy's Oliver is thoroughly convincing and deliciously idiosyncratic. Walking with a slightly stooped gait and wearing an alternately amused and rueful expression, the stage veteran reveals his character's incorrigible, coarsely seductive exterior, his probing mind and, eventually, his aching heart. It's easy to see how this aging rou� infuriates his son (charmingly played by Andrew Scott) and fascinates Nadia."

    JACQUES LE SOURD of JOURNAL NEWS: "The show is all about Julianne Moore, but an actor named Bill Nighy comes close to stealing it." & "Nighy is riveting. And he has all the best lines." & "The big question inevitably surrounding this production is, can Moore do better than Julia Roberts, who crashed and burned with her Broadway debut in "Three Days of Rain" last season? The answer is yes. Moore is clearly not as comfortable on a Broadway stage as Nighy is. The infinite subtlety of her many screen roles is not what is needed here. But when push comes to shove you can see Moore drawing on her oversized acting talent to pull her through. Effortless acting it is not, to be sure, but it is thoroughly competent." & "Hare is a thoughtful playwright who engages the mind with extraordinary turns of phrase. He always gives competing points of view a full and fair airing, without stacking the deck. But here there isn't much doubt about where the playwright stands, and it is Nighy - as Oliver Lucas, an opponent of the war from its start - who delivers a volley of perfectly turned phrases. The match with Moore can't really be even." & "Hare again proves to be a thinker's playwright, who leaves us amply nourished. Just how many of those do you find on Broadway?"

    LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY: "Moore's Broadway debut - and first New York stage appearance in 14 years - is a crushing disappointment. She knows the lines but has no character. We cannot be absolutely certain, but we suspect that, even with a seasoned theater actress at the center, Mendes' production and Hare's drama would still be diffuse, didactic and unpersuasive. With Moore as a void in the middle of at least three overlapping triangles about up-to-the-moment international politics, love and the ethics of a well-lived existence, the thing is a mess." & "Best of all, the play offers the belated American debut of Bill Nighy, a marvelous staple of British theater"

    MICHAEL KUCHWARA of ASSOCIATED PRESS: "Be advised that many of the arguments in the British playwright's muscular morality tale are delivered by the marvelous Bill Nighy. The man lifts the sometimes ponderous debate into heady theatrical territory. Nighy portrays a randy rooster of an English doctor engaged in strenuous discussions with his son's attractive girlfriend (Julianne Moore), an American journalist turned academic. Both performers are making their Broadway debuts in this production but it's Nighy who steals the show with a witty, Tony-caliber performance. But then the character he plays, a physician named Oliver Lucas, is a provocateur, an expert at provoking his physical-therapist son (Andrew Scott) who has never forgiven his father's philandering." & "Moore, best known as a film actress in such movies as "Far From Heaven," "The Hours" and "Boogie Nights," is a little tentative, particularly in the first act. Yet she gains confidence in Act 2, when Oliver and Nadia go head to head for a late-night confrontation on the lawn of the doctor's home. The actress is at a disadvantage, too, in that Hare has given her more of his high-tone pronouncements � statements that often sound as if they are little sermons."

    DAVID ROONEY of VARIETY: "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." & "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." & "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." & "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."

    External links to full reviews from the popular press

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    USA Today
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