David Hare knows how to wring drama out of current events and how to push buttons. He did all that in his last New York production, "Stuff Happens," a docudrama about the runup to the war in Iraq. It was manna for Bush-bashers. It seems Hare isn't finished with that topic. In "The Vertical Hour," which opened last night at the Music Box Theatre, the playwright continues the conversation. Just what Hare, or more specifically, his heroine Nadia (Julianne Moore, in her Broadway debut) has to say in this thoughtful, often exhilarating and beautifully staged production may surprise you - like, that the invasion of Iraq was a noble and justified attempt to alleviate human suffering. The Iraq debate, however, isn't the real focus. It underscores a personal triangle - Nadia, her boyfriend, Philip, and his estranged father, Oliver - all wounded, and all on the lam from something or someone. The majority of the play takes place in the garden of a home in Shropshire, a rural county in England near the Welsh border, which designers Scott Pask (sets) and Brian MacDevitt (lights) have rendered handsomely. Physical therapist Philip (Andrew Scott) brings Nadia home to meet Oliver (Bill Nighy), a physician with strong criticisms of the war in Iraq, as well as for his son, his son's career and his son's girlfriend. The meeting sparks thorny confrontations and painful confessions. Nadia, you see, is a former war correspondent and an expert on terrorism of such stature that she has been called to the White House to give advice on the war. She staunchly defends the invasion of Iraq as a humanitarian crusade. Now burned out, she left the front lines for Yale University, and grapples with whether teaching is self-preservation or cowardice. 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. On stage, as in films, she excels at turning herself inside out to expose the rawness within. 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. But it is Scott, an Irish import, as Philip, who is the find here. He leaps to the top of my list of "Actors whose work I don't know but now have to."
He is magnetic playing a young expat enthralled by Nadia, yet fearful his womanizing father will ruin their relationship, just as he wrecked his mother's life. Although they make only brief appearances, Dan Bittner and Rutina Wesley (playing Nadia's students) leave lasting impressions. Sam Mendes, director of the Oscar-winning film "American Beauty" and Broadway's "Blue Room" and "Cabaret," guides the play smoothly. The fading in and out between scenes lends a cinematic feel, but Mendes mostly keep things simple. That's smart, since the play is crammed with many points of view and much detail, along with ample talk of philosophy, morality, heroism, capitalism and more. Though "Vertical Hour" sometimes heaves under the weight of it all, Hare provides much ammunition for post-show talk. So much, in fact, that I forgive Hare's thud of a conclusion, which would be remiss of me to reveal here. It comes well after Nadia's explanation of the title, that "in combat medicine, there's this moment after a disaster, the vertical hour, when you can actually be of some use."
If only someone could have intervened during the vertical hour when Hare wrote the curtain line.
The home team doesn’t stand a chance. On paper it looked as if the Yanks might at least put up a good fight in “The Vertical Hour,” David Hare’s soggy consideration of the Anglo-American culture divide, which opened last night at the Music Box Theater.
The production stars Julianne Moore (representing the Americans) and Bill Nighy (leading the British), and is staged by Sam Mendes, the British director who won an Oscar for — how symmetrical — “American Beauty.” And it is the first play by Mr. Hare, a perennial of the National Theater in London, to make its international debut on Broadway.
For the occasion he has created a stateside variation on the morally intense, politically engaged British heroines he etched so memorably in plays like “Plenty” and “Skylight.” Ms. Moore, the four-time Oscar nominee (and cosmetics spokesmodel) who has made a career out of magnifying fracture lines in her characters’ porcelain prettiness, seemed an auspicious choice.
Her very presence, if not of Julia Roberts proportions, automatically raises the odds of a Broadway show’s hitting the pages of People. Mr. Nighy, on the other hand, is largely known in this country as the barnacle-encrusted, octopus-faced villain from the blockbuster movie “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”
Yet in theatrical terms (never mind the ideological side), there is never even a contest. Though Ms. Moore appears at home on the stage, her American star shine is no match for Mr. Nighy’s wily British craftsmanship. Mr. Nighy, to put it bluntly, mops the floor with Ms. Moore. You could even say that with his irresistibly mannered performance, he mops the floor with Mr. Hare’s play. Under the circumstances this can only be counted as a blessing.
Mr. Hare, who became famous for dissecting the rotting body politic of his native land via polemical dramas, recently turned his scalpel to the United States with “Stuff Happens,” a lively documentary play about the events leading to the invasion of Iraq. In “The Vertical Hour,” his first work on Broadway since “Amy’s View,” with Judi Dench (1999), he stays on the same thematic page but with far less incisiveness and assurance.
Ms. Moore portrays Nadia Blye, a former Christiane Amanpour-style television reporter who did hard duty in Bosnia and Baghdad and has now retired to the political science department at Yale. She finds herself in another kind of battle zone when she accompanies her boyfriend, Philip Lucas (Andrew Scott), on a visit to his estranged father, Oliver (Mr. Nighy), a doctor living in rural seclusion on the Welsh border.
Nadia, you see, believes it is the duty of the United States to solve the problems of other countries, a belief that embraces the invasion of Iraq. Oliver, who was against the war from the beginning and is understandably fond of medical metaphors, sees it as a disastrously botched operation by inept surgeons.
As the pair progress from skirmishing to full debate, more essential differences emerge. Nadia embodies a spirit of can-do pragmatism, active engagement and blunt talk; Oliver is all about contemplation, detachment and indirection.
Yet as day bleeds into night, which turns to morning on the grounds of Oliver’s country home (lyrically designed by Scott Pask, with lighting to match by Brian MacDevitt), you sense a growing, dangerous attraction between these opposite types (well, duh).
More important, it becomes clear that they — and Philip, as well — share one immense thing in common: they are all in flight from their own lives. And while Nadia may perceive herself as Ms. Fix-It, it is Oliver who leads her on the road to self-enlightenment, with a little assistance from the spirit of Sigmund Freud. (The play’s title is a reference to a term from combat medicine, meaning the window of time after a catastrophe in which a doctor can be of use.)
For all its obvious topicality, much of “The Vertical Hour” 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. The watchword here is “underneath,” spoken in knowing italics and introduced early in the play (in a prefatory scene in Nadia’s office at Yale) by a rich student (Dan Bittner) with a crush on his telegenic professor.
This approach of looking beneath a book’s cover leads Mr. Hare to commit some atypical crimes against dialogue. “When you were talking about your past, about Sarajevo, I couldn’t help thinking, ‘This is a woman who’s been badly hurt,’ ” Oliver says to Nadia. And here’s Nadia, furrowing her brow on the subject of her boyfriend: “I’m beginning to understand how marked Philip is by his upbringing.”
Such lines might be less flinch-making if we were caught up in the thrust and parry of dueling sensibilities. Ms. Moore, alas, is miscast. On film she has brilliantly elucidated the inner conflict in passive women (“The Hours,” “Far From Heaven”), but has invariably seemed less authoritative in action roles (“Hannibal,” “Jurassic Park: The Lost World”).
For “The Vertical Hour” to crackle, Nadia must be credible as a tough, assertive woman who exists principally and determinedly on the surface. Ms. Moore often seems sheathed in an air of apology and uneasy introspection. This fine actress comes into her own only when Nadia’s defense system is shattered, leaving her emotionally naked. Emotional nakedness is Ms. Moore’s specialty, and it’s here that you sense the magic she is capable of.
Mr. Scott has a touching vulnerability as the neglected son of a powerhouse father (though given Philip’s self-defined role as a fitness-obsessed hunk, he seems a bit too much of a sensitive plant). And Mr. Bittner and especially Rutina Wesley, as students whose questions nudge Nadia toward self-awareness, turn in sharp and seamless performances.
But let’s be honest. 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.
As for his eccentrically parsed line readings, every pause and stammer acquires suspenseful weight. And it seems unlikely that any other actor could bring down the house, as Mr. Nighy does, with the line (delivered to Nadia as dawn is breaking), “Five’s a good time for Chardonnay.”
Mr. Mendes, who directed Mr. Hare’s popular hit “The Blue Room” on Broadway (starring Nicole Kidman), doesn’t generate much tension here, aside from eliciting some provocative glimmers of sexual attraction between the two leading characters. The best that can be said of his staging is that he has let Mr. Nighy have his head.
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.
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.
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.
The concept of politics - or love, for that matter - as an urbane mixture of party games and blood sports is very English, and David Hare is a very English playwright.
His new drama, "The Vertical Hour," opened last night at the Music Box Theatre, the first of his plays to have its world premiere on Broadway.
Starring the splendidly handsome Julianne Moore and the splendidly disheveled Bill Nighy, it has something George Bernard Shaw-like about it in the seemingly tempered balance of its political arguments, although we're mercifully spared Shaw's rhetoric and paradoxes.
As we saw in his play "Skylight," Hare is at his most subtle in annotating the fever chart of mundane sexual tension, especially one tensed up by a generational gap - and the sparks flashing here between the quietly conniving Nighy and the oddly aroused Moore are something to be observed.
But that is not what the play is about. Or is it? Or is it about fathers and sons?
Moore is Nadia Blye, a former war correspondent who covered Bosnia but has left the field for a professorial chair at Yale.
She teaches political studies with a rightish-wing stance, making her something of a rarity in the ivy-clad groves of academia, but getting her invited to the White House for advice.
She's fallen in love with Philip Lucas (a spectacularly nuanced performance from Broadway newcomer Andrew Scott), a British-born physiotherapist now living in the United States.
He takes Nadia to England to meet his 58-year-old father, Oliver (Nighy), living in a lonely part of the Welsh border country.
As Hare explains in the play, "the vertical hour" is a term in combat medicine, describing the moments when someone can be useful after a shooting or some other disaster.
Having explained the title, the play proceeds to provide the disaster. No, not a shooting, but, at least for one of them, the kind of psychic disaster that can be almost as traumatic.
What's fun about English playwrights is that they see no division between politics and people.
Nadia, with her commitment to the war in Iraq, and Oliver, cynical and scornful of America's intervention, can still find certain emotional common ground.
Hare, unlike Shaw, is nonpolemic. We know Hare's politics, or at least we think we do, from his brilliant, anti-war drama last season, "Stuff Happens."
Stuff happens in "The Vertical Hour," too, but it's evenly dished out and, as a result, we acquire unusual insight into three characters and their lives. Yes, at times the play is glib - the scenes in Yale that bookend the play are a tad too neat, and Oliver's basic persona just a touch too obvious.
Still, 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.
Moore, better known for her films than her stage work, deftly shades the complexity of this activist/academic gingerly threading her way through the moral choices that are the land-mined territory of her intellectual landscape. She's firm, understated and superb.
Nighy (the tentacled Davy Jones of the last "Pirates of the Caribbean") 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.