The heroine of David Hare’s The Vertical Hour is a former war correspondent turned political-science professor (Julianne Moore) who doesn’t know that capitalism is an economic system. She’s chosen her boyfriend, a physiotherapist (Andrew Scott), for the aura of stability he radiates, though almost the first thing we learn about him is that he’s the hideously tormented child of a disastrous marriage—not the best foundation for stability. But, of course, Hare’s confusions don’t end there. The professor is apparently a liberal who’s a gung-ho interventionist about Iraq, equating the totalitarian stability of Saddam’s regime with the post-Soviet chaos in Yugoslavia. At first, you assume that the heroine’s just not very bright. But then you meet her antagonist, the physiotherapist’s divorced father (Bill Nighy), a doctor with A Tragic Secret in his past, who, meeting the professor for the first time, alternates attempts at seduction with displays of argument-shredding contempt, and as the meandering debate drags on, you realize that it’s Hare, not the heroine, who isn’t very bright. At least, not about what makes human beings interesting or plays dramatic. Moore, projecting a sweet vulnerability, is hopelessly irrelevant to her role; her experience of war correspondents seems to come from having seen Sigourney Weaver in The Year of Living Dangerously. Nighy, though a more effective and articulate presence, “characterizes” his role with a maddening clutter of head-cocking, arm-twitching tics. Scott, though way too tense for someone whose specialty is bodily training, gives the most centered performance of the lot. But with a play this shiftily self-important and inconsequential, it hardly matters.
Far more knowingly written, though much too tidy in its assemblage of ironies, is David Greig’s The American Pilot, the cogently told story of what goes on in the minds of native underlings and overlords when a U.S. military plane crashes in the remote mountains of an Afghanistan-like country. The carefully mapped, quasi-Shavian twists of the tale, as the situation balloons out of proportion, ultimately destroy the intended tragic force of the ending: All the logic-choppers who went through agonies of doubt get killed, and you can’t help thinking it serves them right. Still, the piece is short and its questions well worth raising; Lynne Meadow’s squarish but not bad production boasts several excellent performances, especially those of Waleed F. Zuaiter as a Burgoyne-ish guerrilla commander, Aaron Staton as the injured pilot, and Anjali Bhimani as the idealistic daughter of the family that takes him in.