Seen on Broadway: The Bush administration could not ask for a better mouthpiece than Julianne Moore, who makes her Broadway debut in David Hare’s The Vertical Hour, which is playing at the Music Box Theatre. Moore gives a crisp and tightly wound performance as Nadia Blye, a former war correspondent turned Yale political science teacher, whose outspoken support of the Iraq conflict has put her at odds with the faculty and students. Some relief from her pariah status comes from her British-born boyfriend, Philip (Andrew Scott), who gave up a career in medicine for the easier money as a physical therapist, and is franchising wellness centers in Connecticut. Philip takes Nadia to the Welsh countryside to visit his doctor father, Oliver (Bill Nighy). This is a prickly reunion at best, as a distrustful Philip holds Oliver’s absentee parenthood and compulsive womanizing against him. And it doesn’t take very long for the 800lb. gorilla in the room—Iraq—to brush up against Nadia and her prospective father-in-law. But Hare, whose last play was the war-room indictment Stuff Happens, treats the sparring with initial kid gloves, and with good humor. Oliver’s smart remarks and asides, dryly delivered by Britain’s go-to character actor of the moment (under tentacles he played Davy Jones in the recent Pirates of the Caribbean film), get their share of the laughs but are as much a self-defense against his own failings as they are a counterpoint to Nadia’s convictions. Hare clearly admires Nadia, whose harrowing front-line experience in Bosnia converted her to liberation efforts, whatever the motives of the liberators. As the shadows lengthen over the large tree that is the dominant element of Scott Pask’s set, Nadia and Oliver, an unrepentant 60’s-style liberal, clash, then come together, over the course of the day and night.
Brian MacDevitt’s attractive cyc lighting is schematically arranged, plunging into deepest darkness when the characters chip away at the last of their illusions in Act Two, then brightening into new daylight as a certain calm is restored. Moore and Nighy, whose oddly deliberate gait and speech pattern teeter on mannerism without succumbing, are faultless under the direction of Sam Mendes, another returnee from the big screen. I have to give credit to Scott, who makes as much as he can out of the thankless role of Philip, the kind of character who exists to enter stage right at inappropriate moments to misinterpret conversations the leads are having. Hare respects Nadia’s and Oliver’s principles, however they have led them astray in practice (at the top of the show Oliver alludes to an accident, later explained, that is at the crux of his problems with his son), but manages little more than benign contempt for Philip, a quasi-American whose understandable resentments and suspicions are pretty much waved away. As Philip is something of an audience surrogate, comfortable and therefore expendable in his less-examined life, that dismissal rubbed me the wrong way. Stimulating though it is, The Vertical Hour (a combat medicine term defining the moment, immediately following disaster, when aid can most effectively be applied) is also limited by the author’s prejudices and presumptions about people negotiating the ever-shifting middle ground.
The production is bookended by scenes set in Nadia’s office at Yale, which opens onto the spare but enticing Welsh landscape that Pask and MacDevitt have suggested, with only a long table with wine bottles and glasses and a chair or two for décor. Ann Roth’s unpretentious costumes and Christopher Cronin’s unobtrusive sound design, which includes snatches of Bob Dylan, are efficiently mood-setting. [Showman Fabricators constructed and automated the scenery while GSD Productions provided the lighting and audio.] Regrettably, the show closes with “Both Sides Now” on the soundtrack; The Vertical Hour has flaws, but much as I like the song the show deserved more than this final, obvious touch. —Robert Cashill
Seen Off-Broadway: Scott Pask is also the set designer for Martha Clarke's production of Kaos, now running at New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village. Based on short stories by Italian writer Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) and the very interesting 1984 film, Kaos, by the Taviani Brothers and Tonino Guerra, this combination of movement, text, and music transports the audience to a village in the Italian countryside, in this case on the island of Sicily, where the villagers act out the intertwined stories, including the tale of Bata, a man who was left outside under the full moon as a baby, a group of peasants asking the baron to build a cemetery on the land they have cultivated for centuries so they can bury their father there, a woman who yearns for the son who left for American yet spurns the one that remains nearby, and an epilogue in which a man converses with his late mother.
Pask built a wall along the left side of the stage and into audience (house right): the kind of pale stucco wall topped with the kind of red tile roof used for farms throughout the European countryside, with simple wooden doors, a broken stone step, a small window with a wooden shutter. This wall serves as the façade for the village houses, with an upstage cyc and floor in roughly the same color (Kaos is performed in Italian with the English text projected on the upstage cyc, with projection design by Tal Yarden). The lighting by Christopher Akerlind varies from a warm interior light that shines through the doors and windows as they open, to the chilling moonlight that affects Bata, driving him mad, every time there is a full moon. A large single source upstage right provides the moonlight in the first part of the story, as Bata's wife discovers his secret affliction. In the second part of the story, which comes later as the various tales are editing as a collage, a single source moon is seen downstage right, moves to upstage right, then upstage left as it "rises," increasing its impact. The stage area is left open as if it was the village square, with just a pile of stones and a few chairs as props, allowing the actors freedom of movement. A trap is carried off at one point, as a grave is dug, with dirt shoveled from below the stage level. The side wall stops short of the upstage cyc, allowing a lighting position for sidelight from stage left. On the exposed brick wall of the theatre, stage right, additional lighting positions offer low side light that caresses the faces of the actors.
Costume design is by Donna Zakow who chose a somber palette, primarily black and grey with some earth tones added in the women's blouses. The men wear dark suits, some with hats, while the women are in long skirts. The unified palette makes adds to the ensemble feeling of the evening, as the actors slide from one story to the next. The men's costumes were executed by John Kristiansen New York Inc, while the women's clothes came from Schneeman Studio Ltd.
Music and movement play a large part in the storytelling here (as is the wont of director/choreographer Martha Clarke). Music direction is credited to Jill Jaffe and John T. La Barbera, who appears on stage playing the mandolin and guitar (another actor plays a soulful muted trumpet and several use sleigh bells or a tambourine as an accent to the text). A program note indicates that much of the music is traditional, based on research by La Barbera and the celebrated musicologist, Alan Lomax, who made field recordings in Sicily in the 1950s. Sections of classical pieces by Vivaldi and Bach are added to the score. Performed without an intermission, Kaos is an interesting look into the literature of Pirandello à la Martha Clarke's dramatic interpretation. —Ellen Lampert-Gréaux