The Vertical Hour
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 5, 2006
In Stuff Happens (seen earlier this year at The Public Theater), British playwright David Hare laid much of the blame for the current mess in Iraq at the feet of President Bush and other American politicians—quite reasonably, if a bit polemically. In his new play The Vertical Hour, which is having its world premiere here in New York, he chides Americans in general for doing such a lousy job managing the world's only superpower, implicitly blaming us not only for the War but for many of the country and planet's other ills.
There's a story surrounding all of this: an unpleasant tale of Nadia Blye, an American war correspondent-turned-academic who is famous enough to be on TV and to be asked by Bush himself to serve on some kind of task force about Iraq; her fiancé, a British physical therapist whom she met at her gym; and his rude, contrarian father, with whom they are spending a weekend at his remote home near the border of England and Wales. But it seemed to me that Oliver Lucas, the slyly curmudgeonly would-be father-in-law of our American heroine, was created by his author principally to serve as a mouthpiece for a variety of arguments, mostly about how lazy and thoughtless and wrongheaded Americans are (his son's girlfriend in particular), but also about a number of other social ills such as modern health care and the death of '60s-era idealism. He's like one of those father figures from Shaw, only spouting thoughts much less deeply-felt or well-articulated; a bore, in other words, very like the play surrounding him.
It doesn't help that Oliver is portrayed by Bill Nighy in a scenery-chewing performance of astounding proportions. Nighy does some of the least generous acting I've seen in quite some time: he's a ham from start to finish, hogging a limelight that he ought to be sharing with his much more famous co-star Julianne Moore (not that she's any match for him). Worse, masterful technician that he is, he's able to achieve his star turn without working very hard: this is a performance that's all ticks and mannerisms, designed to steal and then hold the audience's attention, without placing much in the way of well-thought-out characterization behind them.
Moore, meanwhile, is pretty much sadly at sea: her technical equipment (e.g., her voice) is clearly not up to the job of eight performances a week, and her efforts to make Hare's ugly American professor into a believable, possibly empathetic protagonist are simply insufficient. She's at her best at repose, listening to Nighy's windy old doctor pontificate about this and that. Having to speak dialogue in which she explains how she deplores all of the atrocious things happening in Iraq yet somehow is still in favor of the war defeats Moore; would proverbially defeat just about anybody.
As the son/fiancé, Andrew Scott comes off as little more than a cipher, albeit a whiny one. (He's a British actor; apparently the producers and director could find no one suitable in America to play this relatively small role.) There are two other characters, both students of Nadia's at Yale: a grasping rising Republican played by Dan Bittner and a vague-thinking young woman who's about to abandon her academic career because she's broken up with her boyfriend, played by Rutina Wesley. These characters appear in scenes that amount to prologue and epilogue to the play, where we first encounter Nadia and then learn what happened to her after she met Oliver. They defy credulity in nearly every way.
I'm not against Hare wanting to make political and social comments in his plays, but I'd prefer that he write believable and interesting ones in which to make them. Sam Mendes's direction is by-the-book, with the staging built around an unnecessarily humongous (though impressively lovely) tree that is not only the centerpiece of Scott Pask's set design but pretty much its entirety as well. Any points that The Vertical Hour might score against conspicuous consumption are essentially trumped by this massive luxury item smacked down onto the Music Box stage for no clear reason other than to make us forget we've paid nearly a hundred bucks to (mostly) hear three people we'd never wish to actually meet snipe at each other for two-and-a-half hours.