Theater

'Vertical Hour': A Battle of Wits Over War

Bill Nighy and Julianne Moore embody two conflicted nations in David Hare's comedy.
Bill Nighy and Julianne Moore embody two conflicted nations in David Hare's comedy. (By Paul Kolnik -- Barlow Hartman Via Bloomberg News)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 2, 2006

NEW YORK -- As the dashing British actor Bill Nighy explains it in "The Vertical Hour," David Hare's new play about transatlantic political fissures, the English response to power is something Americans never quite get.

"No doubt, you feel that if your president calls, you have to answer that call," Nighy tells Julianne Moore, who plays a war-correspondent-turned-Yale-professor in Hare's oftentimes briskly appealing comedy.

"If my prime minister called," he adds, "I'd let it ring."

Hare, author of a string of politically minded plays, from "The Secret Rapture" to "Stuff Happens," doesn't need an actor to make him sound smart. But Nighy can't help himself. Every line he utters in "The Vertical Hour," which opened Thursday night at the Music Box Theatre, registers with the effortlessness of one whose wit has been honed over a lifetime of impassioned debate emboldened by erudition and claret.

It's the kind of roguishly funny performance in which an audience loses itself -- and through which allowances can be made for a play's less-than-perfect machinations.

In the case of "The Vertical Hour," the imperfections coalesce around the character Moore is called on to play: a bright, idealistic American of conflicting impulses and priorities.

The character is wrestling with her emotions: a desire to do good and a sadness at the mess the world is in. But Moore opts to play her a bit too introspectively, and so she never seems quite the woman of action (albeit in academic hibernation for the moment) that Hare intends. Her encounters with Nighy should set off sparks and yet, in Sam Mendes's staging, they lack an essential edge. The imbalance throws the piece off what might have proved to have been its more urgent emotional axis.

Even so, "The Vertical Hour" at times manages to feel freshly on point: It's a lively dissection of how two cultures look at the world's troubles. As embodied by Nighy's Oliver Lucas and Moore's Nadia Blye, an Anglo-American alliance must be strong enough to support conflicting doctrines about what counts as engagement with the world. Implicit in the play is Hare's deep displeasure over what he sees as Britain's allowing itself to be drawn into Iraq by America's powerful pull.

What he has written, however, seems less condemning than illuminating, about how British and American sensibilities over such interventions might differ.

Although the play begins and ends in Nadia's office at Yale -- where she is meant to seem a fish out of water -- the meatiest parts of "The Vertical Hour" are on the lawn of Lucas's house in Wales. An ex-reporter who made her name in Bosnia, Nadia is now an expert in international relations and a sought-after TV pundit. She's come to Wales on vacation with her boyfriend, Lucas's son Philip (Andrew Scott), a physical therapist who's attractive to her principally because he's not quite her intellectual equal.

Like Nadia Blye (is her name supposed to conjure up Nellie Bly?), Oliver is in flight from a noisier life; once a renowned kidney specialist, he's now a country doctor, for reasons that will be affectingly divulged in Act 2. They're kindred spirits, drawn to each other in obvious and subliminal ways. In a sense, Oliver is the danger Nadia has consigned to her past, and the play hinges on what Nadia learns from him in their talks in a cool of a Welsh night, about what path her life should take.

The landscape and sky are luscious elements here. Lighting designer Brian MacDevitt brings the dawn up in mellifluous pinks, and Scott Pask, the set designer, creates a magnificent tree to dominate Oliver's meadow. It's reminiscent of a tree that towered over one of Hare's earliest hits, his play about Thatcherite politics, "The Secret Rapture."

One thing, however, that never jells in "The Vertical Hour" -- which takes its title from combat vernacular -- is a credible sense that Nadia has spent time on a battlefield. Moore is wholly plausible as someone with the sensitivity to write about war, but her donnish demeanor makes it seem far more likely that she'd want to do it from the safety of an Ivy League library. As her lover, Scott is a solid presence, and Rutina Wesley offers a pleasing turn as a Yale student who comes to Nadia in crisis.

Nighy's work here sets the evening's standard. He's a fidgety kind of actor, a fact that is apparent even in his film work (you might best recall him from the British ensemble comedy "Love, Actually"). His magnetism, however, is more apparent on a stage, where he seems so poised, such a natural that you could easily imagine him continuing the performance up the aisles, out to the street, and into any sociable establishment in town.

That's talent, actually.

The Vertical Hour, by David Hare. Directed by Sam Mendes. Costumes, Ann Roth; sound, Christopher Cronin. With Dan Bittner. About 2 hours 15 minutes. At the Music Box, 239 W. 45th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company