A 'Vertical' fall for Hare and Moore

Times Staff Writer

OK, so how did Julianne Moore's Broadway debut compare with Julia Roberts' coolly received one last season?

Moore wins by a nose. But David Hare, the esteemed British playwright, shouldn't be smiling. In fact, much of what is lacking in Moore's performance can be attributed to the unconvincing role Hare has written for her.

The play is called "The Vertical Hour," and it had its world premiere Thursday at the Music Box under the direction of Sam Mendes. Stage and film veteran Bill Nighy costars, and he's firing on all cylinders. But not even his flamboyant realism can rescue this sluggish and exhaustingly verbose excuse for a drama.

If this sounds harsh, let me say that I was stalwart in the face of boredom. I felt certain there would be a payoff. Hare is too experienced a political dramatist not to redeem the slowness of his tactics.

No such luck. And not even Moore's exquisite beauty could ease the disappointment, which is saying something when you consider she possesses one of the great faces in contemporary cinema.

Moore plays Nadia Blye, a "political studies" professor at Yale who was formerly a foreign correspondent. She's known as a terrorism expert, but her interest lies more broadly in exposing human rights abuses.

The model for her character seems to be Samantha Power, the similarly fetching, red-haired Harvard professor whose book "A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide" would be just the kind that Nadia would write if she were at all believable.

An actor can't just fake the articulate brilliance and moral fierceness of someone like Power; she has to demonstrate these qualities -- and that requires more than just an appreciation of their worth.

Nadia has supposedly witnessed the worst of what humanity is capable of. Her eyes should burn T.S. Eliot's question "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?" into every global conflict they stare down.

That Moore can't summon this fervor is immediately obvious in the opening scene in which she chastises one of her undergrads for his lazy, privileged thinking. The interaction couldn't be more handicapped by Hare's utter cluelessness about academic protocol. Instead of critically dismantling the paper she's returning, Professor Blye complains that she hasn't persuaded him to her "view of politics."

Come again? If this is the best Yale has to offer, there's no point in sending the kids away to college. After some superficial talk about capitalism, the student confesses his love for his teacher, only to be told that, as a feminist, she feels angry at his presumption. The two then feebly exchange thoughts on Freud, which would seem banal for a high school hygiene class, never mind an Ivy League tutorial.

The poorly observed action whisks off to Wales, where Nadia's boyfriend, Philip (a subtle and utterly faultless Andrew Scott, poor guy), introduces her to his illustrious and notoriously philandering doctor father, Oliver (deftly portrayed by Nighy). Long conversations ensue. Nadia and Oliver touch on huge issues (among them the Iraq war and Nadia's initial support for it on humanitarian grounds). He challenges her politics. They drink. He questions her retreat into academia. They surreptitiously flirt. Philip grows angry. Oliver shares his dark secrets. The interminable talk stretches into the dawn.

From the vantage point of each character, something different is happening. But the underlying theme involves the discrepancy between one's commitment to public good and one's problematic private qualities -- a paradox that will become slightly clearer when Nadia returns to Yale.

Hare has written a psychological play about political people. His perspective seems to be that psychology is both inescapable -- we are motivated by unconscious forces that are shaped by our pasts -- and inadequate to describe what drives exceptional altruists like Nadia and Oliver.

The title of the play, which refers to the moment in combat medicine when a caregiver can still helpfully intervene, reflects the mental surgery Oliver and Nadia are performing on each other. Formally, the work mixes the moral disputation found in Jean-Paul Sartre's plays with the dramatic indirection of Henry James' late novels, in a half-baked manner that can be blamed only on Hare.

But back to Moore, who's a first-rate film actress though out of her depths onstage. For her, acting is largely about the close-up, which means that she tries to authentically experience what her character is going through moment to moment.

This kind of method acting for the mirror can be highly effective in the movies. The camera is a lie detector, and Moore can be counted on for scrupulous honesty. But it's not enough for the theater, and neither Hare's play nor Mendes' paralytic staging lead her into that heightened form of expression in which inner experience is forced to confront a tribunal larger than the self.

Nighy, on the other hand, offers a master class. Too bad it's in the service of Hare's time-wasting curriculum.



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