PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Vertical Hour — Torn Between Yale and Wales

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Vertical Hour — Torn Between Yale and Wales
 
Stuff Happens, said another way by David Hare, comes out The Vertical Hour, which tipped the scales at two and a half hours in its premiere rant-through Nov. 30 at the Music Box Theatre. The words were passionate, frequently funny, intelligent, sexy, political, plentiful — for wont of a single word, Hare-brainy. This could only be a David Hare play.
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"Stuff Happens told the public story of how the British and Americans went to war," Hare said. "This is more the private story. This is how people's lives have been changed since the Iraq invasion and since 9/11. They are companion pieces. They belong together."

Which was what The Public's Oskar Eustis was telling him last year. According to Eustis: "He had written this when we had done Stuff Happens, and I was trying to convince him to let us do this at the same time so that we could have both shows running at The Public simultaneously. But then Broadway beckoned and so forth, and he did what he had to do, but I think the plays would have been a really interesting dialogue. We could have done this in the Anspacher, while Stuff Happens is being done in the Newman."

Instead, The Vertical Hour has gone even more public than The Public with a big Broadway production of words and ideas. Imported from the movies, Julianne Moore and Bill Nighy head a cast of five, all of whom are making their Broadway debuts.

It is also the first time that Hare has sprung a new play on Broadway. Previously, he has stuck to his own British backyard, perfecting his works there before peddling them across the pond. So how did this happen, one has to ask. "Because," said Hare, "Sam Mendes, basically, stole the script from Robert Fox's office. He wanted to direct it, and he lives here — and the actress best qualified to play the part, Julianne Moore, also lived here. And so, because they lived here, that seemed the best place to put it on. There are also three central characters in the play who are Americans so it just seemed the right thing to do.

"It's a play about America," he added — yet, strangely, its heart and mind are elsewhere, save for two small scenes bookending the opus. They take place in an office on the Yale campus where Moore, a war correspondent back from the frontlines hides behind a professorship, helping two colorfully disparate students (Dan Bittner and Rutina Wesley). The rest of the play occurs under a majestic tree on a serene hilltop in Shropshire in rural England near the Welsh border. Her physiotherapist fiancé (Andrew Scott) brings her here to meet his estranged, roue dad (Nighy), and the plot triangulates. There is also a third country — invisible, insistent and never arrived at — pulling at her.

Scott, who plays the son in danger of being cuckolded by his father, realizes he hasn't really earned any audience sympathy. "Yeah, it's that sort of role. People's natural stance is to go with certain opinions at certain times when people don't have fervent ideas about things that are not black and white The character of the father is black, and the character of the woman is white. So I suppose people relate to the other character, who's a bit gray.

"I suppose the challenge of it was to make somebody who's a listener an active thing."

He has had good luck in England, role-wise. He just finished a run of Dying City by the American playwright Christopher Shinn. A separate production opens Feb. 26, 2007, at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, starring Pablo Schreiber in a dual role. Scott also plucked off an Olivier Award for a play at the Royal Court called A Girl in the Car With a Man. "I played this guy who's sorta self-loving — narcissist guy — and the whole thing we had to do, we had to film it. We filmed the whole thing. We had a camera. We filmed it as part of the experience for the audience. I filmed myself, and it was projected simultaneously so the audience had the choice of either watching me on screen or real. It was an absolute nightmare. I was really against the idea of filming myself, but I did it, and it worked well."

Scott Pask, a co-designer of The Coast of Utopia, to give you an idea how big he thinks, gives great tree, and he's very proud of what he hath wrought here: "It's sculpted. I drew it. I oversaw it. I leafed it. I have individually wired leafs. It became a major endeavor."

There was a starry group of first-nighters who turned out to see what Hare had to say.

Gerald Schoenfeld, on his way into the Shubert house he co-owns with the Irving Berlin estate to see a play co-produced by his Shubert Organization, stumbled over a barricade at the door and almost fell. "I'm suing, I'm suing," he jested to any journalist within earshot.

A tanned and terrifically turned-out Ellen Barkin has entered her austerity period looking like a knockout in an elegant black cocktail dress. This was her No Jewels Look, but the dress was cut so low nobody noticed. Interested in some stage work? "If they'll have me."

The Best Actor and Best Actress winners of the 2006 Evening Standard Awards, passed out Nov. 27 in London, were both in attendance. Kathleen Turner, cited for her blowzy, boozy Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, confessed "surprise and delight" at the selection. "It really caught me off-guard," she admitted. But the prize will balance nicely against Bill Irwin's Tony when the two kick off their national tour Jan. 3 at the Kennedy Center. Irwin's performance — along with two others due over here after the first of the year (Kevin Spacey's in A Moon for the Misbegotten and Michael Sheen's in Frost/Nixon) — lost to Rufus Sewell's portrayal of a music-loving Czech in Rock 'n' Roll.

Sewell said to expect him — and the play, another political cavalcade by Tom Stoppard (set in Czechoslovakia, 1968-1989) and the Evening Standard's pick for 2006's Best Play — in New York "hopefully, next year." There is, he allowed "a bit of Stoppard to do here, stuff already going on" — an allusion to The Coast of Utopia: Voyage, part one in the trilogy that just cranked up at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont. "We're going to try and see it. I'm only here a couple of days. I've just finished a play. I'm just resting and seeing things."

Others attending: Wicked producer David Stone, Avenue Q director Jason Moore, Barry Diller with Diane von Furstenberg, Steve Kroft from "60 Minutes," Kate Bosworth, Denis O'Hare, Joan Rivers, The Post's Michael Riedel (one of the play's first repeat customers), Jennifer Jason Leigh and her writer-director husband Noah Baumbach, Anna Wintour, Zuleikha Robinson, David Bowie (who doesn't brake, or slow down, for photographers), Mimi Lieber, Heather Randall, Jesse Tyler Ferguson (enjoying the holidays here, having hopped a ride back on CBS' coin to sell his series, "The Class," on the Thanksgiving Day parade), Scott Wittman, Bob Crowley, Charlotte St. Martin, and a pack of playwrights: Terrence McNally, Paul Rudnick, Bruce Norris, Jeff Whitty, John Patrick Shanley and Arthur Laurents, the latter with his last (and Mendes') Mama Rose, Bernadette Peters.

Newly relocated John Shea's eyes were practically dancing at the opening-night hoopla. "I've been gone five years, but I'm back in New York now and I want to work in theatre."

Mrs. Sam Mendes created a titanic commotion wherever she went — paparazzi being paparazzi, and she being Kate Winslet — but she did make a concerted effort to play supportive backstage wife. It flew better away from the theatre barricades at the afterparty in the Royalton lobby, where she was free and footloose and fielding quite a few compliments about her work in "Little Children," for which she's being Oscar-touted.

At the party she found enough spouses of the key creatives to form a bridge team: Bart Freudenlick, Moore's filmmaker husband who directed her "Trust the Man" flick; Nicole Farhi, wife of the playwright; and that marvelous actress who's not too quick to wed, Diana Quick, Nighy's nonbride from "Brideshead Revisited" for nigh onto 2.5 decades.

Lauren Bacall was star bauble of the evening and insisted on being seated next to Nighy. "I adore Bill," she huskily declared. "Never worked with him, unfortunately. I hope I do one day. He's a marvelous actor. I've seen him a lot in England in the theatre."

By the time the BBC News windbag had finished with Hare and Mendes, both were pleading vocal rest — the divas! — but caved to special pleading from selected press. Why The Vertical Hour? Mendes was asked. "I just wanted to do a new play. I wanted to do something that wasn't a revival, that was contemporary, that was about the world we are living in now. I thought it was a wonderful play, it had wonderful parts, and it was a very delicate, beautiful and gentle love story in the midst of this debate about politics. And I think it's exciting to have a thousand people a night listening to a play about now."

He said he acquired his star in a very unglamorous way. "Our children go to the same day school down on 14th Street, and I bumped into her at school and said, 'Will you talk to me about this?' She said, 'I'm not free until the spring.' That's how it happened. You imagine all those glamorous people meeting in bars or pubs, but this deal was done at 8:30 in the morning on a wet Wednesday last January."

Nighy came from Hare's camp, and Mendes couldn't be more pleased. "It's amazing to meet someone like Bill, who has absolutely no cynicism at all about the profession — about the world, really. He's an innocent. He's a most delightful man, really. There's no bitchery. There's nothing malicious about him at all. And to watch someone whom I saw emerge as a major movie star in his mid-50s is a wonderful thing. Why would Judi Dench emerge a major movie star in her mid-50s — and Ian McKellen? You're watching it happen in front of your eyes. When it happens to them in their 50s, they really f--king earned it."

Nighy arrived looking as attractively disheveled in person as he did on stage. No difference. Nada. "It's a helluvah night," he moaned and groaned. "It's been a big week. I've never worked in New York before and never opened a play on Broadway, and I do think it's kinda different here where you have these three press nights and then an opening night with no critics, whereas we just have one night of terror and you're over."

Long-stemmed and loose-limbered, Nighy is a perpetually moving maze of in-the-moment mannerisms, most of them mined from Hare it seems. "Well, we've been together a long time, David and I," the actor allowed. "He was giving me leading roles when no one else was giving me leading roles, and he gave me breaks nobody else was going to give me. He put me on the National Theatre stage in England in a leading role. He gave me leading roles on film, and I admire his work as much as I admire anybody's. I love delivering his jokes. He writes world-class jokes. He just writes very beautifully, and, if you speak it properly, it just is the most beautiful writing. I think he is a very great writer and a very important man."

And, speaking of distant Hare echoes, has anyone noted that he is partial to auburn-haired heroines — Moore here and Blair Brown in The Secret Rapture. Does his vision come complete with hair color?

Moore's movie-star training betrayed none of the Broadway baptism-by-fire she had just been through, but she was quick to echo Nighy's sentiments: "This last week has been kinda stressful, as I'm sure you understand — press week and opening night and all of that — and the pressure has been really enormous. But we've had an incredibly supportive group of people. I mean, all the actors —we're really good friends, and Sam and David — it was a great feeling of support."

She racked up a couple of Caryl Churchill plays down at The Public years ago — Ice Cream With Hot Fudge and Serious Money —and did Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street in an about-to-be-demolished movie house, but those are distant memories for her now, almost a new discipline. "It's tough because you started it an eight o'clock, and it continues for the next two hours. And, if you miss a step emotionally, you don't get that step back. It's like everything that he writes builds on something else. It's not like you can fake it so there is an urgency, I think, in making sure that you're really inhabiting each moment."

Fortunately, she plays a character she loves. "She moves me because she is completely an idealist. At the end of the day, I think what David has written is so incredibly moving."

The company of <i>The Vertical Hour</i> takes its opening night bow.
The company of The Vertical Hour takes its opening night bow. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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