Triumphant Broadway Debut: Bill Nighy's Time Has Come

There’s at least one outstanding reason to see David Hare’s premiere of The Vertical Hour at the Music Box: Bill Nighy, playing Mr. Hare’s worldly Englishman to Julianne Moore’s idealistic American, is giving one of the most remarkable performances ever seen in a Broadway debut. Standing ovations are a routine on Broadway, as if audiences wanted to be noticed, too. But when this consummate, cool actor took his bow on the opening night, he was greeted by a roar of appreciation and, yes, instant love that was extraordinary in my theatergoing experience.

The superb, newly anointed Mr. Nighy is known here only for his movies (in particular, his wonderfully funny superannuated 60’s rocker in Love Actually). In fact, he’s a veteran stage actor in England whose theater work began in earnest with the early plays of David Hare.

Mr. Nighy is both a leading Hare actor ( A Map of the World, Skylight) and a Pinter actor ( A Kind of Alaska, Betrayal). But The Vertical Hour confirms his exclusive brand of greatness. Mr. Nighy looks like one of Whistler’s rakish, languid aristocrats lolling about the place. He’s awesomely relaxed, an urbane presence, cultivated, ironic in the light English style, and razor-sharp. His innate, mercurial spontaneity makes it hard to imagine him giving the same performance twice. He possesses the stagecraft and dangerous edge of a Michael Gambon with tics. To watch him in The Vertical Hour nonchalantly responding to misguided American earnestness is to appreciate the nature of lethally understated disdain.

Alas, the beautiful Julianne Moore isn’t his equal partner. She last appeared onstage 14 years ago, as Chekhov’s repressed object of desire, Yelena, in an experimental Off Broadway production of Uncle Vanya (which became the Louis Malle film). I wasn’t alone in finding her ingénue Yelena rivetingly fresh and real. The performance signaled a terrific stage career to come, but Ms. Moore was lost to movies.

Admired for capturing the inner turmoil of her conflicted, trapped heroines in The Hours and Far From Heaven, she plays in The Vertical Hour a passionate, extroverted Christiane Amanpour figure (albeit with personal problems)—and her performance is uncertain. Her recessive body language is defensive, betraying, at present, a lack of confidence. She easily suggests her character’s cold, pigheaded intelligence, and she’s that rare thing, an excellent listener onstage. But she’s unaccustomed to conveying solitude in public. Director Sam Mendes has encouraged her to mark her “big moments” too blatantly, whereas the star convinces us most when she’s more herself in her effective, quietly emotional scenes with Mr. Nighy.

The Vertical Hour continues David Hare’s preoccupation with public events and private agony, with clashing systems of beliefs, moral compromise and political commitment, humanitarian ideals and fragile human beings. Mr. Nighy plays Oliver Lucas, an outwardly cynical doctor, and Ms. Moore is Nadia Blye, a former TV personality and war correspondent in Bosnia and Baghdad turned professor of political science at Yale. Both characters represent the playwright’s Shavian opposites. But Mr. Hare, usually so good at writing roles for women, has compounded the production’s imbalance by giving Mr. Nighy by far the best lines.

The play follows his Iraq War docudrama Stuff Happens, and it’s as much about emotional war zones and submerged trauma as it is about the war itself. The Vertical Hour concerns Nadia’s visit to Oliver’s isolated Shropshire home with her English boyfriend (a physical therapist, of all things). He’s Oliver’s estranged son, Philip, who fled England for a new life of fitness in America. Andrew Scott, another British actor making his Broadway debut in the cast, is perfect as the good son burning with resentment at the brighter father. In a too-convenient dramatic set-up, the left-wing Oliver vigorously opposes the war in Iraq, while Nadia, a liberal-turned-neocon Bush advisor, supports it as a humanitarian crusade, at least in principle.

With Broadway offering boulevard comedies, Sondheim revivals and Mary Poppins, Mr. Hare’s political play is a prestigious event. But for Americans exhausted by years of turbulent debates about the war in Iraq, I regret to say that The Vertical Hour is old news. (Beside which, Mr. Nighy’s Oliver easily demolishes all Nadia’s arguments). Unusually, Mr. Hare’s timing is off: Debates about the merits of the Iraq war have become superfluous. The unwinnable war is over and done with, bar the fighting.

Mr. Hare’s take on Ivy League academic life is peculiarly off, too. His notion that trust-fund kids at Yale would oppose Nadia’s friendly visit to the Bush White House doesn’t ring at all true. The war has barely roused a peep of protest from campus students—rich or poor. Two brief, unconvincing scenes set in Nadia’s Yale study serve as bookends to the action, but, in truth, the play could do without them. Mr. Hare’s melodramatic curtain line alone is out of sync with our times. The playwright is on much firmer ground at home in England, where the central garden scenes on the Welsh border of remote Shropshire (designed with spare, seductive elegance by the brilliant Scott Pask) promise to shine with Mr. Hare’s more customary wit and banter.

But he stretches his war metaphor beyond the limit, and his dollops of announced Freudian insight (meant to reveal what’s really going on underneath outward appearances) naïvely overstate his point. The title The Vertical Hour refers to the desperate moments just after a disaster in combat, when a doctor might be of some use on the battlefield. So, in the heated debates that take place between Mr. Hare’s warring protagonists on the fallible nature of American culture and do-gooding—or global responsibility versus moneyed indifference—to borrow a phrase, stuff happens.

At the end of the day—and of the central second act—the schematic emotional battlegrounds of the evening boil down to one low question: Will Bill Nighy’s irresistible, privately suffering English doctor get to lay Julianne Moore’s beautiful, privately suffering earnest American?

It’s a testament to the genius of the mesmerizing Mr. Nighy that you really should see him in The Vertical Hour, just to find out.