Deep into the second act of The Vertical Hour, on stage through Feb. 16 at Lantern Theater Company, playwright David Hare reveals the meaning of the work’s peculiar title. In combat medicine, it refers to the brief moment when the people on the ground have the opportunity to affect the situation’s outcome. But it’s usually so fleeting that the efforts are for naught.
This could also serve as a metaphor for the troubled lives of the play’s protagonists: Nadia Blye (Geneviève Perrier), a war reporter turned political science professor at Yale, and Oliver Lucas (Joe Guzmán), an aging product of the hippie generation resigned to a self-imposed exile in the English countryside.
Thrown together by familiar circumstances — American Nadia is dating Oliver’s expatriate son, Philip (Marc LeVasseur) — the pair traverse a dark night of the soul, exploring their traumatic histories as the sun gradually rises over the Welsh border. (Shannon Zura’s subtle, evocative lighting is one of the production’s highlights.)
Nadia and Oliver are both wounded people — some of those wounds are self-inflicted — and the storytelling is at its most compelling when Hare homes in on their conflicted spirits.
The proceedings flatten out when the playwright attempts to appliqué a patina of seriousness on what is essentially a standard-issue domestic drama, by tying his characters’ emotional states to their political convictions. The play premiered on Broadway in 2006, at the height of the fallout over Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the dialogue occasionally dips into the realm of cable news sound bites.
The long first act, which casts hawkish Nadia and pacifist Oliver as gleeful sparring partners, shows The Vertical Hour at its most horizontal. “I’ve seen the results of our indifference,” Nadia flatly argues. “So if you want me to pass my evening defending the right of Western countries to use their muscle to free Arabs from systematic oppression, I’m up for it.”
Oliver, a former hotshot doctor now in quiet private practice, can’t pass up a smug medical metaphor: “Let’s just say I knew who the surgeon was going to be, so I had a fair idea how the operation would turn out.”
These scenes are didactic and ultimately fatuous. And Lantern’s production — under Kathryn MacMillan’s slow-moving direction — suffers from a key bit of miscasting. Nadia is described as formidable, someone who doesn’t suffer fools. But Perrier’s wan performance is devoid of the swagger you’d expect from an intrepid foreign correspondent.
Guzmán similarly lacks the seductive charisma that Bill Nighy brought to the role in the original Broadway production.
Hare bookends the meat of the play with two largely expendable scenes in Nadia’s office at Yale. Although they add little weight to the drama, I appreciated the introduction to Sydney Banks, a recent UArts graduate, who makes a strong impression in a role that otherwise dips into lovesick coed clichés.
In just a few lines, Banks shows how it’s possible to achieve a lot with a little. I hope to see more of her on local stages, in parts befitting her obvious talent.
The Vertical Hour
Through Feb. 16 at Lantern Theater Company, St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets.