#h#"The Vertical Hour"#/h#

In his provocative, politically focused play, “Stuff Happens,” British playwright David Hare assessed the buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq through a clever mixture of public record and artistic speculation. Actors portrayed the actual architects of the war. In “The Vertical Hour” Hare considers the personal response to the war, as seen from two different and opposing perspectives. This provides the only stimulation in an otherwise unconvincing ho-hum romance-in-trouble drama.

Atypical as it is for a British play to have its world premiere on Broadway, I suspect if “The Vertical Hour” had opened first in London it would not have been imported. That is unless the producers had the assurance of a star of the caliber of Julianne Moore. Moore is, in fact, the principal reason for the play’s hit status.

The luminous Moore, who is making her Broadway debut, never quite convinces (perhaps she is miscast) as Nadia Blye, a former war journalist now a rigid right wing professor of political science at Yale. Part of her problem rests with the upstaging performance of Bill Nighy, who plays the father of the young man with whom Nadia is in love. As Oliver, a retired physician, Nighy gives one of the most eccentric and annoying performances to be seen in a long time. Whether he is twisting his legs into pretzel shapes when sitting or twitching his hands when standing, it is so distracting that one is hard pressed to listen to his decidedly liberal evaluation on the calamitous errors of the U.S. invasion. Moore does her best to hold the stage but gets little help from her character’s unconvincing political tirades.

There is plenty of room for political diatribe in the main part of the play, which is set in Wales, where Nadia has been brought by her lover, Philip, a physical therapist (Andrew Scott), to spend a day with Oliver, with whom he been estranged. You may wonder why on earth did Philip bother but that wouldn’t leave room for us to see the palpable tension between the Philip and Oliver, made more so by Philip’s fear that Oliver will have no qualms about trying to seduce his fiancee.

In a brief scene, actually a prologue, Nadia addresses or rather dresses down a student (Dan Bittner) for his somewhat mercenary goals, even as he confesses his unbridled love for her. In an epilogue back at Yale, another confrontation between Nadia and a student, Terri (Rutina Wesley), fills in what happened and shows Nadia in a slightly different light. Sam Mendes’s direction is mostly notable for its lenience. The title refers to the time in combat when help is possible. The play doesn’t offer any such hope. Two stars.

“The Vertical Hour,” through March 28, the Music Box Theater, 239, West 45th Street. $76.25 to 96.25. 212-239-6200.

#h#"The Coast of Utopia: Part II"#/h#

Taken as a whole, the three parts of Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” run about eight hours. That places its length squarely between Eugene O’Neill’s five-hour “Strange Interlude,” and Peter Brook’s 11-hour staging of “The Mahabharata.” However, in the manner in which it is being presented, “Coast” is closest to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 10-hour production in 1980 of “The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby,” where, as is also true of “Coast,” you could either see the entire production in one day or on consecutive or selected nights. There is no question that the length of a play often suggests a grandiose scheme or theme or both. In the case of “Coast,” Stoppard can take credit for its grandness and greatness, but mostly because it is simply terrific theater.

Our highest expectations were met with Shipwreck Part II, which begins in 1846, two years after the last scene in Part I. The epic-scaled drama has us already hooked us on the amusing intellectual, radical political, and messy romantic paths of a closely aligned group of philosophers and activists in early 19th century Russia. It is hard to imagine any contemporary writer other than Stoppard who could bring as much historical and rhetorical consideration into a play(s) that when it really gets rolling, as it does with Shipwreck, becomes an unforgettable alignment of passionate hearts and political heretics. It is too hard to imagine another director other than Jack O’Brien who could inspire so many vivid performances within such a large ensemble, especially the one given by the radiant Jennifer Ehle, who, as the amorously self-emancipated Natalie Herzen, becomes the focus of this centerpiece’s most arresting and erotic episodes.

With Part II, the personal storylines, especially those of the women, often taking the spotlight away from the men, are more closely watched. Natalie, in particular, is not someone whose opinions necessary reflect those of her husband, Alexander Herzen (a fine and stirring performance by Brian F. O’Byrne). A nobleman, writer, and founder of the free Russian Press, Herzen’s non-traditional views are seen in contrast to the decidedly more reckless idealism of his closest friends.

Times are harder in Shipwreck for the characters, all friends and relations that we first met in Voyage, Part I, most of whom, by right of their education and upbringing, are now considered threats to their country. They idle away their summers outside of Moscow and chatter. Part II opens with a gathering of them, although they are a bit older and questionably wiser. Besides Natalie and Alexander, this august assemblage of the “intelligentsia” includes writer Ivan Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner), and Herzen’s childhood friend, the poet Nicholas Ogarev (Josh Hamilton), who can take great pleasure arguing the merits of a good cup of coffee with as much vigor as they do the eternal life of the soul.

While Turgenev’s love for a married opera diva becomes a lifelong obsession, it is Ogarev’s estranged wife, Maria (a bracing performance by Amy Irving, who also plays the Bakunin mother in Part I), who is destined to create more than a bit of havoc in Ovarev’s life. In Act II, Irving has her coup de theatre in a marvelously brittle scene with Ehle in her Paris studio.

The drama begins to percolate, however, when Alexander and Natalie receive permission to leave the country to seek medical help for their deaf son, Kolya (August Gladstone). In Paris, we are re-acquainted with the passion/purpose-filled ranting of the literary critic, Vissarion Belinsky (more bolts of lightning from Billy Crudup), who has traveled there after seeking a cure for his consumption at German spas. Also there is that incorrigible revolution-intoxicated Michael Bakunin, as played again by the ebullient Ethan Hawke.

In keeping with the tumult of the times, Stoppard fuels the unsettling political changes with some sensual and intense liaisons: Natalie’s dalliance with the German poet George Herwegh (David Harbour) and her provocative relationship with her friend, Natasha (Martha Plimpton) are riveting. Natalie’s unorthodox behavior leads to the ire of Herwegh’s wealthy Jewish wife, Emma (Bianca Amato), but is even more dismaying to Alexander, who finds it difficult to accept Natalie’s far too progressive attitudes about love and loving.

At the top of the sensual sweepings is a stunningly beautiful homage to Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe” with Ehle as the voluptuous subject. The scene in which Alexander challenges Natalie’s views when she admits her love for both Herwegh and Alexander is a confrontational doozey. If Richard Easton’s marvelously stodgy performance as Alexander Bakunin in Voyage was standout, then you’ll be even more delighted by his brief but comically considered role as a Russian Consul General in Nice.

Despite the turbulence of the times, including a pageant-like staging of the 1848 Paris uprising, the overthrow of King Louis Philippe and the rise of Prince Louis Napoleon, Shipwreck is first and foremost a marvelously seductive play and is, in many ways, superior to Voyage. And the designers: Bob Crowley and Scott Pask’s settings, including La Place de la Concorde, are as remarkable for their unaffected grandeur as is the lighting by Kenneth Posner that illuminates them. Catherine Zuber’s breathtaking costumes reveal a subdued palette, but lord knows this crowd could use a little restraint.

In spite of the spectacle, O’Brien never compromises the splendid actors for the splendor of their surroundings. And what a joy it is see an American director and cast of more than three dozen American actors doing what we thought only the Brits could do. It would be remiss not to mention the excellent supporting performances of Patricia Conolly as Madame Haag, Herzen’s doting mother; and David Pittu, as two stereotypically funny waiters, one French, the other Italian.

The chaotic romantics are so skillfully woven into the incendiary political actions and declarations in Shipwreck that it is hard, unlike the expository tone of Voyage, to decide which dominates. That’s all to the good, as we can see Natalie on a personal level as a revolutionary in her own right as well as we can see also the so-called revolutionaries as often petty, self-serving, and probably deserving of their fall from grace, if not greatness. For the fruits of their insurrections and indiscretions we must await Salvage Part III. 4 stars.

“The Coast of Utopia: Shipwreck Part II,” through May 13, Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street $100 and $65. 212-239-6200.

Facebook Comments