The Vertical Hour by David Hare. Directed by Sam Mendes. Set design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Christopher Cronin. Cast: Julianne Moore, Bill Nighy, with Andrew Scott, Dan Bittner, Rutina Wesley.
For the second time in a year, a beautiful, A-list movie actress with distinctive red hair is spending time away from Hollywood on a Broadway stage on West 45th Street, tackling a work by a prolific contemporary playwright. But unlike the last time, this debut is not so easy to dismiss.
Julianne Moore acquits herself far better in The Vertical Hour, which just opened at the Music Box, than Julia Roberts did in Three Days of Rain this past spring. David Hare's new play is intermittently provocative, but also pudgy and pandering. If Moore occasionally stumbles under the weight of those qualities, that she doesn't let them deter her from making a real woman from the symbolic construct they outline says much of the talent and commitment she's brought to Broadway.
Let's be clear: Her performance here is not really on par with most of her film work. An intense, sophisticated actress who brings a measure of high society to all her roles, Moore consistently gives some of the most intelligently articulated performances in movies today. In her Oscar-nominated turn as the suffering, progressive wife in Far From Heaven, as the put-upon wife in Magnolia, or even channeling Jodie Foster in Hannibal, she bears an airy wisdom and delicacy one would more readily associate with an early 20th century stage starlet.
These qualities would seem to make her ideal for the role of Nadia Blye, a war correspondent-turned-Yale professor who follows her boyfriend Philip (Andrew Scott) to England to meet his reclusive father Oliver (Bill Nighy) and finds more of herself than she anticipated. This outspoken supporter of the invasion of Iraq, so fiercely protective of all human life she once advised President Bush, bursts with the staunch, independent spirit that has often inspired Moore onscreen.
Onstage, at least as directed here by Sam Mendes, Moore's performance is not exactly rife with complexities. It doesn't lack depth: There are flashes of insecurity beneath Nadia's curiously affected strength, of world-weariness struggling to escape its dangerously energetic host. But there are only flashes: Moore tends to adopt one dominant emotional stance in each of the play's five scenes, enact its necessary variations, and move on to the next.
Even so, Moore maintains a quietly captivating aura. This is likely because her performance is well in keeping with the way David Hare has written the play.
Each scene presents a basic obstacle that must be overcome before the play can progress: Nadia must deal with either a smitten but potentially brilliant student (Dan Dittner), or a brilliant but nihilistic one (Rutina Wesley); she must survive her first meeting with the caustic, no-nonsense Oliver; she must maintain her relationship with Philip against his insecurities, Oliver's prodding, and her own shifting needs; and so on. The writing is so baldly episodic that the penultimate scene culminates in a series of two-character confrontations utilizing every possible combination of Nadia, Oliver, and Philip, the theatrical equivalent of Hare throwing his hands in the air.
This approach to playwriting paradoxically feels more regressive and dated than Hare's retro-Shakespearean Stuff Happens, which played at The Public Theater this past spring. It is, however, more compelling, avoiding outwardly polemical and world-changing attitudes in favor of a quieter study of the human cost of war, as paid by those who never fight in it.
Nadia has witnessed it firsthand and knows its horrors, but Oliver has his own relationship with death and has been fighting his own private battles for years. It turns out each is living in his or her own "vertical hour," the time after a battle or a disaster in which hope is not necessarily lost. If the connection between the two is obvious, if tenuous, the moments that explore the triage they conduct, in their professional and personal lives, are among the play's most effective.
But the more political the proceedings get, the less reality-bound they become. Nadia and Oliver's disagreements, primarily over the War on Terror, are remarkably, unconvincingly safe, completely without the enmity that usually floods such discussions but with the platitudes, predictable conversion, and even more obvious conclusions locked firmly in place. It's writing that wants to acknowledge but not challenge, and thus does neither more than passably well.
Nadia's experience abroad, especially in the Balkans, has given her sympathy for the disenfranchised and the forgotten, but Nadia agrees with the Bush administration about little else. This makes her a weakling the more dynamically and broadly opinionated Oliver can defeat with a single stroke: Nadia's most passionate speech in support of aiding the oppressed is only an applause-baiting setup for Oliver to topple her with a handful of quiet and perfectly chosen words to make her recognize the folly of President Bush's Iraq policy for the first time.
Dishonest and transparent as the moment might be, Moore tackles it seriously and movingly, and it's in her subsequent breakdown that her shining star emerges. The reserved, smoldering Nighy is solid vocally and emotionally as Oliver, but is physically bizarre: His rickety movement, which suggests a malfunctioning Swiss Army knife, give him a distractingly unnatural posture onstage. Moore, while more comfortable, frequently moves stiffly as well.
One is tempted to blame Mendes, whose direction is short on decisiveness and tends to let tiny moments get too big. But that wouldn't explain Scott, whose understated, casual ease makes his work the production's smoothest and most satisfying. So affable is he as the son trapped in two people's shadows that you wish the character were less of an afterthought. He's essentially apolitical, and his feelings for Nadia are limited to concern and jealousy that give him few opportunities to display any innate warmth.
Scott manages to anyway, but that's the play's problem in general: When politics and romance collide, someone will be left out in the cold. In the world of the play, that's Philip; in our world, it's us. Moore suffices as the show's shimmering, radiant heart, even the life force on which these disjointed pieces can thrive, but The Vertical Hour needs a fortified spine and a more engaged and open mind that she, for all her virtues, cannot bestow.