The Vertical Hour
Also see Richard's review of The Waiting Room
David Hare's densely argued plays, in which the energy is generated by clashes of ideas, often seem haunted by the spirit of George Bernard Shaw. But the ghost within his new work, The Vertical Hour, is Henry James, whose obsession with the tensions between the old and the new worlds drove the flowering of the literary movement called Realism. The impulsive, intuitive, open but often naïve and more often violent Americans who have peopled the casts of modern fiction and drama on both sides of the Atlantic are James's legacy, as are the impenetrably subtle, scheming, exquisitely polite but deadly Europeans, and especially Brits, both male and female.
The fact that this play, which has opened a three-week run in the Studio Theater at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis, had its premier in New York, rather than at London's National Theater where Hare has been resident genius for many years, seems more significant after seeing the play than in the abstract. Hare has explained, essentially, that it was simply a case of the circumstances being right – both his director and his leading lady were reluctant to leave New York, and there were scheduling problems at the Nat – but the fact is that both story and characters are a lot more likely to be appealing – or even of much interest – to American audiences.
This is partly because many Europeans see our post-9/11 predicament as a comeuppance long overdue (since Vietnam, at least) and hope that we will begin to reassess our romantic notions of moral and ethical superiority. Our campaign to spread Democracy, especially as that term is understood by the Neo-Conservative movement and its Bush administration, seems to them to be driven by the coldest of commercial motives, and at the same time to be unbearably naïve.
The fact that Americans of liberal persuasion understand and respect the European point of view means that our theater audiences may find genuine tension in Hare's set-to between a brilliantly intellectual feminist version of Indiana Jones and a morally compromised British patrician with a phenomenal ability to read character, whereas for British audiences it is more likely to seem that the American simply has no case to present.
The play opens at Yale, where the young woman is a professor of Political Science, having anchored herself in this accommodating harbor after a decade of dangerous voyages as a war correspondent. Two brief scenes, snippets of her admirable drive to bring reason into the work of two students, one a movement conservative and one an equally ideological liberal, frame the play's core, which covers a period of roughly twenty-four hours during which she and her lover pay a visit to his father in Shropshire.
The lover, who has been estranged from his austere, philandering father for what seem good enough reasons, plays almost no role in the developing conflict between the professor, whose idealism practically gleams in her eyes, and the father, whose cynical and often funny comments about American politics and manners mask his true intentions. As the brief three-way encounter plays out, we come to see that the father's motives have as much to do with ending what he views as a disadvantageous relationship for his son as with setting the professor straight.
The "vertical hour" of the title refers to the brief window of time after a traumatic injury during which medical intervention is most effective; here, the injury is ongoing, and the intervention must be subtle, a planting of the seeds of discontent in the heads of both lovers. The delicacy with which Hare peels away layers of motive and the quiet, almost anti-climactic resolution of the play's tensions are again reminiscent of Henry James.
Anderson Matthews, a familiar favorite of Rep audiences, gives a solid reading of the father; Gloria Biegler is both strong and vulnerable as the professor. Both actors do admirable work with movement and gesture. Jeremiah Wiggins as the son is practically marginalized by Hare's script and by director Jim O'Connor's staging, but comes across as a warmly likeable person somewhat out of this depth.
Marie Anne Chiment's set and costumes deserve special mention; she makes excellent use of the Studio Theater's quirky space, and the clothes, as subtle as Hare's text, add depth to the characterizations.
Its resolution isn't surgically clean, but David Hare's The Vertical Hour raises interesting questions for American audiences, and deserves our attention. It will run through February 3 in the Studio Theater at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis. For ticket information, call (314) 968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.