April 15, 2015

"Skylight"—And Its Stars—Shines Brilliantly

So much money is now spent on creating spectacles for theatergoers that we sometimes forget that all that’s really needed are a play with something to say and actors who know how to say it. At least that’s all that proves necessary to make the revival of David Hare’s 1996 play Skylight starring Bill Nighy and Carrie Mulligan one of the most exquisite experiences of this theater season.

The play unfolds over a wintry night in the drab and barely heated London apartment of a young schoolteacher named Kyra who is visited by her much older and much, much wealthier former lover Tom (his car and driver wait for him, unseen, outside the building).

On the surface, the plot is simple. Years earlier Tom and his wife hired the 18-year-old Kyra to work at one of their tony restaurants and she became a virtual member of their family.  But the older man and younger woman began a six-year affair that ended only when the wife found out and Kyra fled, cutting off all contact with the family. Now the wife has died and Tom wants Kyra back.

But Hare has never been a surface kind of playwright. While he explores the tangle of love and betrayal, grief and guilt that connect Tom and Kyra, he also delves into the larger morass of class, income disparity and social responsibility.

The broader politics are made personal in the choices Tom, a self-made man, and Kyra, in self-imposed exile from middle-class life, have made. And they're also underscored by Bob Crowley’s evocative set, in which the poor neighborhood where Kyra lives forms a visible and enveloping presence in the background.

Skylight is nearly all talk (although Kyra prepares and cooks a spaghetti dinner onstage; so don’t see the show hungry) but the talk is riveting: sometimes angry, often funny, always insightful. And under Stephen Daldry’s deft direction, Nighy and Mulligan make a feast of it.

Although he’s best known in this country for movies like “Love Actually” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” Nighy is a veteran stage actor in Britain and has a long association with Hare (click here to listen to the two of them discuss that).

But the last time Nighy was on Broadway, he appeared opposite Julianne Moore in The Vertical Hour and seemed to reign himself in so as not to overpower Moore in what turned out to be her shaky Broadway debut.  But he’s gloriously unleashed here and it’s a marvel to behold.

Tall, gangly and vibrating with energy, Nighy’s Tom is unable to stand still, posing, preening, kicking in chairs, twisting his face into grins and grimaces, all in a desperate—and mesmerizing—effort to woo Kyra back and all the while fearful that he can't. 

I saw Michael Gambon, who recently announced his retirement from the stage, in the original 1996 production of Skylight and Gambon used his bulk to make Tom a more solid and imposing presence.  Both interpretations work but I—and even my husband K—found Nighy’s to be utterly seductive.

The role of Kyra is less flashy but Mulligan is no less compelling. I first fell in live with her when her performance as Nina in the 2008 production of The Seagull literally reinvented Chekhov for me (click here to read my review).

Hare has said that he’s turned down requests from numerous other actresses to play Kyra but got excited when he heard that Mulligan wanted to do it and his instincts prove right. 

Mulligan roots Kyra’s determination to do good in a compassion for the less fortunate but she also makes it clear that Kyra’s decisions are a way to atone for her past wrongs and to insulate herself from future ones.  It’s a quietly devastating performance.

Of course Mulligan, too, has a flourishing movie career and so this production is only scheduled to run at the Golden Theatre through June 21. It’s selling out but you should do what you can to get a ticket because it's the kind of spectacle you really should see.

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