All Talk

Sitting through The Vertical Hour is a tall order.

Jan 23, 2008 at 4:00 am
In 1883 Oscar Wilde returned to England after a yearlong tour of America. Upon arrival in Liverpool, the bon vivant summed up his journey by quipping to reporters, "The English and Americans have everything in common, except, of course, their language," an aphorism he repeated four years later in his novella The Canterville Ghost. But beneath Wilde's glib wit, there is a vein of truth that might well influence how you respond to David Hare's The Vertical Hour, which seeks to isolate British and American attitudes toward politics.

The play, currently on view as part of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio series, concerns Nadia (Gloria Biegler), an American journalist who supported the invasion of Iraq. Nadia accompanies her British fiancé to a remote locale on England's border with Wales to meet her prospective father-in-law. Oliver (Anderson Matthews) is a physician who lives like a hermit out of harm's way. Despite his withdrawal from the world, the good doctor seems to be as well informed and opinionated about international affairs as, well, Hare himself. Despite a subplot in which Oliver's son (Jeremiah Wiggins) raises questions about the motives behind his father's deceptive charm, mostly this is a "My Dinner with David" kind of duologue between Oliver and Nadia that allows Hare the opportunity to grouse at length about the wrongness of the execution of the Iraq war and the ineptitude of George Bush.

In deciding whether to attend The Vertical Hour, you need but ask yourself one question: Is talk enough? Because not only does the play posit distinctions between American and British approaches to politics, it also exemplifies the stark difference in our views of what constitutes satisfying theater. Despite a common language, our definitions of drama are often at wild variance.

In brief, in American theater the viewer tends to be a witness to action. Willy Loman is betrayed by his sons, Blanche Du Bois is raped by her brother-in-law. These events occur before our eyes, and we are forced to respond. But the British often deem action to be unseemly. To the British, discourse is action. Death of a Salesman, A Raisin in the Sun and That Championship Season are but three of many examples of acclaimed American plays that were spurned by British audiences, who seem to be content to watch characters sit on lawn chairs and chat away the night.

The Vertical Hour is essentially inert, but it is strewn with ideas. As drama, some of this tendentious talkathon is about as compelling as watching actors perform the Federalist Papers. But if ideology is enough to engage you, there's an abundance of it here.

I have nothing but sympathy for the three lead actors, who apparently were directed by Jim O'Connor to ignore any attempt at characterization and instead play the lines. You can feel their insecurity. Arms are forever folded, hands are constantly in pockets, as if the performers are unsure as to how to proceed. Nor do they get much help scenically from Marie Anne Chiment, whose lawn design might just as persuasively be depicting a back yard in Webster Groves as remote England — though apparently not all that remote, because Oliver seems to be wearing a newly purchased dress shirt from JoS. A. Bank.

Perhaps it's the American in me, but I think some effort might have been made to create a world in which these characters could breathe — could, in effect, become people rather than mouthpieces. In the past I have made much of last year's curtain call at the end of the Rep Studio staging of Caryl Churchill's A Number. But when Jim Butz and Anderson Matthews bowed to each other, it was more than mere effect; they were acknowledging their mutual dependence. In this curtain call, each actor bows to the audience with his back to the other two. It seems a fitting précis for an evening in which connections are never made.