by Margaret Croyden

The Vertical Hour


Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

''The Vertical Hour'' by David Hare
Directed by Sam Mendes
With Julianne Moore and Bill Nighy
Music Box Theater
West 45h Street
Reviewed February 1, 2007 by Margaret Croyden.

David Hare is one of England's most produced playwrights. Not only has his plays appeared regularly in London, but ten of them have been performed on Broadway, including his solo performance about his experience in Israel. Besides "The Vertical Hour" at the Music Box, his play "Stuff Happens" premiered earlier at the Public Theater. Later this season he is to direct Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking" starring Vanessa Redgrave. With a resume like this, his plays cannot be missed.

But sad to say "The Vertical Hour" can surely be missed. David Hare, like his colleague Tom Stoppard ("The Coast of Utopia") cannot stop talking. And cannot stop preaching. And cannot stop telling us what's wrong with modern day society, be it England or America. But what Hare tells us can be found in any newspaper or television program. In "Stuff Happens" he tried to dramatize President Bush's politics and what he thought went on in the White House during the Iraq war. But we have seen the Bushies on the TV every day. We know what they want and what they did. An exact replica of them on stage is redolent and theatrically unimpressive--even repulsive.

In "The Vertical Hour" Hare is at it again. Here the Bush position is mouthed by a woman reporter Nadia (Julianne Moore), who has been embedded not only in Iraq but in other dangerous wars in Central Europe. She has also been an academic so this gives her another chance to pontificate. Engaged to Philip Lucas (Andrew Scott) an Englishman, she accompanies him to his home to meet his father Oliver Lucas (Bill Nighy), a doctor with a "past." The father, hanging out in a small town on the Welsh border, is a "typical Brit:" sarcastic, cynical, witty, challenging, and sexy--like a character out of a Noel Coward drawing room comedy. And Bill Nighy makes the most of it.

He and Nadia engage in a boring political debate: she upholding the Bush doctrine and he challenging everything this American nitwit stands for. And nitwit she is, mouthing all the drivel that the playwright put into her mouth, all the political cliches of our time about freedom and liberation and what Bush was trying to do and so forth. She even labors on about her love life, recalling in a heart to heart talk in the second act, her true love (not the man she is about to marry), but a deceased journalist who was unafraid to confront the bad guys during the war: a melodramatic, corny detail that further slows up the already deadly pace of the play.

David Hare has always been a political writer, which may be all to good but it is all to the bad when he writes like a political hack replete with cliches and received opinions. His depiction of an American journalist--behaving like a school girl naively defending Bush's ideas of liberty--is unbelievable. Not that there are no reporters who support Bush. But the way this character expresses her ideas--her emotional outbursts, her self dramatization--bears little relationship to a seasoned foreign correspondent. Maybe the playwright wanted a foil for the physician's ideas but the Brit's position is unclear to begin with, although his attitude is amusing. His son thinks his father is on the make for the beautiful journalist, which enrages him, but it turns out the older man has had checkered past. That he is hanging out in a small town practicing general medicine owing to some dark secret in his life which, when revealed, is not very dark nor very interesting; it only adds to a melodramatic situation. Maybe the playwright hoped that endowing the character with some emotional mishmash would give the play some dimension. But nothing can redeem a preachy tale told in a preachy manner with a story that lacks credibility. The worst part of this production is Julianne Moore's performance. She has all the long political and "philosophical" speeches and she describes in detail her life story. Ms. Moore may be a talented movie actress but she has no feel for the stage. She has no voice, no presence and no charisma. She is immensely boring.

As the cynical doctor Bill Nighy who got all the good reviews gives a professional performance: quick on cue, quick timing with wise cracks, and quick to get laughs. He has a long thin body, moves gracefully and deliberately all over the stage, but has too many tricks. He twitches, scratches his behind, throws his legs around the chairs and tries to dominate the stage. Which he does. But I didn't think he gives a great performance. Maybe it was great if one compares him with Julienne Moore.

Sam Mendes, the well known British director of numerous plays and movies directed this mess. One wonders what his role could have been. The play drags, it is overly long and should have been cut. The direction is simplistic: actors stand around or sit around, hold their wine glasses and continually fill them up. And talk, talk, talk.

David Hare, bound to his static politics, has not found a way to convey his ideas theatrically. Playwrights like him should write essays or editorials in newspapers. I would not be surprised if Hare does in fact do that regularly.

Margaret Croyden is the author of "Conversations With Peter Brook 1970-2000" published by Farrar, Straus and Geroux.


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