In Stuff Happens, David Hare allowed one character to make a brief, cogent case for the Iraq war. He called this character Angry Journalist. For The Vertical Hour, which also has much to do with our Middle East debacle, he has created another prowar journalist—also angry—only this time he gives her a name. It’s a start.
At the Music Box, a war- correspondent-turned- academic named Nadia (Julianne Moore) travels to England to meet her boyfriend’s father, Dr. Oliver Lucas (Bill Nighy). She doesn’t love Bush but supported the war, he despises Bush and opposed it; she gets louder, he gets the good lines. You expect this tête-à-tête from Hare, who likes to keep abreast of the news and isn’t exactly shy about his lefty politics. But there’s a twist here that isn’t expected.
As a younger, more philandering man, Oliver did something he shouldn’t have, and people suffered as a result. It’s tenuous, but Hare implies a similarity between Oliver’s dubious ideals and the pain he caused on one hand, and America’s ostensibly humane intervention in Iraq on the other. Hare can’t bring this off without being a trifle condescending to Americans, but it’s the first treatment of Iraq I’ve seen that handles the catastrophe in a way that’s at all affirmative. It begins to look past the decision to invade, and to wonder what we do about our ideals now. Unfortunately, this momentary largeness of spirit comes wrapped in two hours of meandering drama. Nadia’s journey, which I think was intended to be subtle, is obscure, and not particularly moving.
As the louche father, Nighy has a rumpled, syncopated charm: I didn’t know what he was doing up there half the time, but I liked it. Onscreen, Moore is virtually unrivaled at using her voice and body to convey meaning; emotionally speaking, she’s translucent. But she doesn’t have the skill or the training to be half as good onstage, certainly not in the role of a forceful, battle-hardened woman like Nadia. (She cries exquisitely; she walks less well.) In fact, she’s so ineffectual it’s hard to know what Hare and director Sam Mendes really think of Nadia or how she’s supposed to relate to the other people onstage.
To put it generously, we can thank Moore for reminding us how difficult it is for trained, experienced stage actors to do what they do, and how even very talented screen actors tend to look like beginners beside them. In fact, after this play you finally know what to say if a director tells you he’s thinking of casting a celebrity in a difficult Broadway role. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” I hope you’ll respond, dropping to a slightly daunted whisper. “I mean, even Julianne Moore …”