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David Hare’s new play The Vertical Hour begins with the actor Bill Nighy slinking forth to address the audience. The stage direction says his character, Oliver Lucas, is “undemonstrative”. While the charismatic Nighy upholds the standard for British reserve, his work could not be more at odds with that description. He shows how a first-rate performance is built out of detailed articulation: a cock of the hips, a curl of the lips.
Oliver, a physician in his late 50s who fled London for a Welsh border town, is catnip to women. His son Philip, a physical therapist in Connecticut, resents him, although not enough, it seems, to prevent the younger man from bringing his girlfriend, Nadia Blye, a political studies professor at Yale, to Wales for a visit.
Oliver and Nadia (Julianne Moore) are soon sparring seductively about Iraq and other weighty matters. She supported the war on humanitarian grounds and Hare, with customary intelligence, makes her case a strong one. But Moore is no match for Nighy, in vocal or physical technique, and the interventionist perspective suffers.
What’s more, Moore, who can be criminally affecting on screen, has soft posture. As a character choice, this makes little sense: Nadia is no moral slouch. When personal revelation weakens her defences, Moore’s physical expressiveness expands.
Hare bookends the Welsh conversations with tutorial scenes set in Nadia’s Yale office. These have dramatic value but feel unpolished. The whole evening, in fact, engaging as it is, and with impeccable direction by Sam Mendes, seems to cover less ground than it initially promises.
Given the off-Broadway success a few months ago of Hare’s cracklingly symphonic Stuff Happens, and the excellent reviews that the first part of Tom Stoppard’s politically concerned sprawl The Coast of Utopia, at Lincoln Center, has just received, it would seem that New York
theatregoers, at the moment, like their social concerns writ large. An imperialist impulse, perhaps?
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