The Vertical Hour
The brilliant Bill Nighy enlivens David Hare's new play and ultimately brings co-star Julianne Moore up to his level.
That's the expressed reason for the title. Perhaps the unspoken explanation is that Hare's first act could just as well be called The Horizontal Hour. It's about that long and that flat. It's only in the second half, when the prolific dramatist inserts the above speech as an indication of what he's after, that the play bolts upright and races to the finish line. In the opening second-act scene, which isn't quite an hour long, the two figures tangle dramatically after having circled each other with little passing interest to ticket-buyers.
Nadia has just met Oliver, an esteemed physician, at his far-flung Wales home, having been brought there by Philip (Andrew Scott), her boyfriend and Oliver's son. Philip, who is estranged from his dad, has thought the meeting necessary; but he comes to suspect he made a mistake when he senses his womanizing father isn't above putting the moves on Nadia. Worse, he thinks that Nadia, whose pro-Iraq invasion stance clashes with Oliver's anti-war view, isn't above responding to Oliver's gruff charm.
The audience has the same inkling, which is where Hare becomes mischievous. He leads audiences down the proverbial garden path and then takes an abrupt turn. Nadia and Oliver are of vertical-hour use to each other during their encounter, but in a way only tangentially involving physical attraction. As lighting designer Brian MacDevitt insinuates a Welsh dawn, information leaks out about Nadia's and Oliver's pasts that will illuminate their futures. The exchange, directed by Sam Mendes with the proper restlessness, ignites sparks in an otherwise sparkless piece.
The three scenes which take place in the outdoor area of Oliver's home (the sets are by Scott Pask) are bookended by scenes of Nadia's dealings in her Yale-campus office with two of her students: Dennis Dutton (Dan Bittner), who has become quite enamored of his teacher, and Terri Scholes (Rutina Wesley), whose romantic depression infects her view of global conditions. In addition, every so often, Oliver, Nadia or Philip step to the edge of the stage to make disclosures -- the point of which seems primarily to cover scenery changes.
Those mini-monologues do have a big plus, though. They mean that Nighy has that much more to do. It's a good thing, because his performance goes a long way toward lending needed vitality to Hare's uneven script. Calling Nighy an eccentric actor is like calling Christmas just another day in the year. Hoo-boy, is he strange -- and kind of wonderful!
At times he's like a gopher on a prairie; his head swivels on his neck as if to spot encroaching enemies. He's constantly chewing his inner cheeks, adjusting his trousers at the hips with the palms, jamming his hands in his pockets and pulling them out just as fast, precariously shifting his balance. He continually suggests that his mind is as restless as his long and lanky body. Indeed, the constant jitterbugging is in service to a nervous character still in flight from the aftermath of a long-ago accident.
Another bonus is that in the extended, politics-threaded duologue with Moore, Nighy finally coaxes her to his level. Before that scene, she strains even willing credulity as a brilliant professor whom Philip calls "formidable certainly. Committed. Articulate. Passionate. Full of strong feeling." In her introductory scene with Bittner, Moore exhibits none of those advertised qualities, registering more as a callow freshman trying to impress a suspicious mentor. On the other hand, Scott, who's also been imported from England, is definitely committed, articulate and passionate as someone longing angrily to reconnect with his father. In their single scenes, Bittner and Wesley are convincing Yalies.
With its strong American female protagonist, The Vertical Hour is a return to the plays The Secret Rapture and Strapless which Hare tailored for red-haired actress Blair Brown when they were an item in the 1980s. Apparently, he still has more to say on those subjects. While he takes a while getting there, what David Hare eventually says about the choices we make is worth hearing.