It starts out well enough ... in fact, David Hare's drama The Vertical Hour starts out very well indeed. Nadia Blye, a seasoned war correspondent turned frightfully intelligent Yale professor, is in the process of grilling her student Dennis about a paper he's submitted saying that as the most "successful" country in the history of civilization, America is incapable of doing wrong, so the rest of the world, instead of complaining, should just shut up and bow low.
Nadia is, to put it mildly, discomfited, and this scene is a wondrously well-written intellectual thrust-and-parry. Dennis may be an idiot, but an amazingly articulate one, and Hare does a brilliant job distilling the myopic bravado of America into this one character.
But Vertical Hour, premiering locally at the Playhouse Rep, isn't, in fact, about Nadia and Dennis. We learn as much in the next scene, when Nadia and her live-in British boyfriend, Philip, visit England and the home of his father, Oliver, with whom Phillip has had a tense, distant relationship for many years.
Yet Vertical Hour isn't about Nadia and Philip, either. It's about the political and cultural brinkmanship Nadia and Oliver are going to engage in for the next two hours -- after Nadia announces, unsupported by anything that's come before, that she favors the Iraqi occupation, giving her and Oliver something to fight about.
As it turns out, all Oliver really wants is to sleep with Nadia (and by doing so to destroy Philip). And all too soon (or maybe "all too late"), Vertical Hour becomes a mess of dysfunctional familial revelations.
The play ends up as one wrong dramaturgical turn after another. Again and again, characters express viewpoints and commit actions diametrically opposed to their established characters because, if they didn't, there wouldn't be a play. And by the time we get to the final scene ... well, let's just say that if the fine folks at the Playhouse Rep who staged this production really wanted to do Hare a favor, they would have "accidentally lost" those pages during rehearsals and then forgotten that they lost them. Rarely have I seen a play that started so well and ended so badly.
Given all of that, it should be no surprise that director John Amplas and his high-powered cast -- Sheila McKenna, Robert Haley, Jarrod DiGiorgi and Jeffrey A. Dudek, thrilling actors all -- seem utterly flummoxed by whatever Hare was trying to do. Believe me, they weren't the only ones.
The Vertical Hour continues through March 2. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. 412-621-4445 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com
- Photo courtesy of Drew Yenchak, Lighthouse Photography
- Hare today: Robert Haley (left), Jarrod DiGiorgi and Sheila McKenna in David Hare's The Vertical Hour, at Playhouse Rep