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Watching Lantern Theatre Company’s largely wooden production of David Hare’s The Vertical Hour, a curious thought begins to emerge: “Was 2006 really that long ago?” From the way the characters talk and think about the world, it feels as if the show is coming from another century entirely. The mid-aughts feel further removed from contemporary life than the works of Williams, Albee, or even Chekov.
A weekend in the country
The Vertical Hour takes place during a weekend in the British countryside. Phillip (Marc LeVasseur) brings his American girlfriend Nadia (Geneviève Perrier) to visit his father, Oliver (Joe Guzmán). Oliver’s cottage is near the Welsh border. What follows is largely a play of sparring ideas (both British vs. American, and Boomer vs. Gen X) wrapped in the cloak of an occasionally tawdry domestic melodrama. A sample of the family dynamics: Phillip has never gotten over the dissolution of his parents’ marriage and doesn’t trust his father. Meanwhile, Nadia, a war correspondent turned Yale University political scientist, defends her imperialist stance on the invasion of Iraq when met with Oliver’s British pacifism.
Ideas, not people
To me, as someone whose formative adolescent years were framed by the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Nadia’s indulgent, American-centric naiveté feels inexcusable. What must have felt like at least an interesting argument in 2006 now elicits cringes from this reviewer. Unfortunately, neither Kathryn MacMillan’s direction nor Perrier’s performance does the text any favors. The former has the production moving at a lethargic pace as we watch Nadia and Oliver pontificate and look into the middle distance (the latter giving a quiet tranquility to a character that continuously gets described as a firecracker).
For his part, Guzmán delivers a solid and grounded performance. He provides enough charm to bring the audience in and enough bite to keep Nadia and Phillip on their toes. It helps that he also represents a point of view that is most relatable in 2020. Critiquing Nadia’s fascination with politics, he says, “Politicians don’t speak words, they use them.”
When the play is not hashing out passé ideas about international diplomacy, it falls back on a fairly weak family drama. This is a play of ideas, not people. When we are asked to care about Nadia’s tragic romances, or Oliver’s failed open marriage, we can only shrug.
Fourteen years later
David Hare is a prolific playwright on the British stage who is not often produced here in the States. This is the Lantern’s third production of his work, following a 2008 production of Skylight and a 2010 production of Breath of Life. While I am glad the company is committed to bringing Hare to Philadelphia audiences, there are certainly more graceful works in his oeuvre to be presented. In answering why 2020 was a good time for a revival of The Vertical Hour, MacMillan writes in her director’s note, “In a tumultuous year, politically, for both our nations, this play is a timely reminder that...we have very different forms of government.” The only thing I was left thinking (in this Trump, Brexit, Boris Johnson world) is how very different 2020 feels from 2006.
What, When, Where
The Vertical Hour. By David Hare, directed by Kathryn MacMillan. Through February 16, 2020, at St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets, Philadelphia. (215) 829-0395 or lanterntheater.org.
St. Stephen's Theater is accessible only by stairs.
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