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The Vertical Hour

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We gave it a B+

There are two physical settings in The Vertical Hour. The first is the orderly, wood-paneled office of a Yale political studies professor, Nadia Blye (Moore). The second is the bucolic backyard of a home in rural Shropshire, England, where Nadia travels with her boyfriend (Andrew Scott) to meet his estranged father, Dr. Oliver Lucas (Nighy). Nadia is a brilliant, brittle former war-zone correspondent — think Anderson Cooper with a better vocabulary — and as she uncurls beneath a huge tree, she tangles ferociously with her potential in-law, an embittered old Brit who pushes her buttons about her support of the Iraq war so hard that he winds up dismantling her life choices. (All narrative roads in this highly schematic play lead to Iraq, and every character becomes a soldier in the cultural-fallout war.) Really, though, the entire show unfolds in just one solipsistic place. The stage is a giant lectern, and we’re in the classroom of the mind of playwright David Hare.

When he attends to characters first and sociopolitics second (as he did in 1983’s Plenty, 1995’s Racing Demon, and 1999’s Amy’s View, among other terrific plays), Hare is a consummate, talk-besotted, historically attuned dramatist. Here, he’s often a polemicist. But as the actors conscripted to breathe life into The Vertical Hour begin to uncover actual people behind the debate-team bromides (choreographed like a series of tangos by stage and screen vet Sam Mendes), they bring to the jousts some wondrously graceful footwork. Moore doesn’t always hold up her end. Though she did dazzling justice to Hare’s screenplay for The Hours (they both got Oscar nominations), she’s a Broadway newbie. On stage, she’s working marathon-runner muscles she hasn’t completely developed, and she’s better at outbursts than at the long, deliberate setups that lead to them. (Hare doesn’t help things by saddling her with a lot of repetitive, rat-a-tat exchanges that aim for Mametian but, alas, more often sound Sorkinian.) She’ll probably keep growing into the part, since she’s got Nighy to spot her. He’s a Nijinsky of a sparring partner, cocking his head and pursing his lips in the same witty pouts he gave to his computer-rendered Davy Jones character in last summer’s Pirates of the Caribbean sequel. During superbly judged pauses, he repeatedly fixes audience members with quicksilver stares as he reveals Dr. Lucas’ tragic, womanizing past. Is this his usual stage technique, or is it a touch meant specifically to evoke the free-love-espousing physician’s maddening, irresistible narcissism? Nighy pulls off such a high-stepping, fleet-footed dare of a dance that you won’t even notice the soapbox he’s been made to stand on.