By Karen Isaacs
One of the characteristics of a good play is when you are still thinking and talking about it long after you’ve seen it. Skylight, the play by David Hare that is now getting a terrific revival at the Golden Theatre on Broadway is just such a play.
I first saw it during its initial Broadway production in 1996 starring Michael Gambon and Lisa Williams. Now it is Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan playing the two leading roles. Just as before, I find myself thinking about the play days later.
Hare is a playwright with a strong political bent. But his plays are focused more on the individual than on political leaders — Stuff Happens about George Bush and the second Iraqi War is an exception. He illustrates the problems with British society (and indirectly our own) through the lives of individuals.
In Skylight we have two very different people. Tom is a successful businessman- he owns restaurants and hotels — and while he may rail at the restrictions on him due to selling out to investors (the bankers) — he enjoys both the “game” and the rewards of money. Kyra is a school teacher in a lower income neighborhood living in a friend’s flat that is cold and small. She is finding fulfillment in teaching the children who are, what we call “disadvantaged” and takes joy in occasionally finding that “special student.”
But there is a past that is complicated and personal. Kyra had worked for Tom. When she left home and arrived in London, she had gotten a job as a hostess in his restaurant but within hours Tom’s wife had left her in charge when one of their children ended up in the Emergency Room. From then on Kyra was part of the family and part of the business. In the process of this relationship, she and Tom were lovers for five years.
The relationship ended suddenly when Alice, the wife, found out. Kyra left that day. It has been several years since Tom and she have seen each other. Alice died of cancer and Tom is grieving.
The play opens and closes with visits by Edward — Tom’s 18-year-old son. He shows up at Kyra’s apartment on a cold winter evening. Alice has been dead about a year. Edward is a typical self-absorbed adolescent who thinks he knows and understands everything. He is both angry at his father and worried about him.
Surprisingly, a short time after Edwards leaves, Tom arrives. The one problem with this play is that these two events seem like bolts from the blue. You never quite understand why these two men would decide to visit the same woman who is important to them on the same night.
During the course of the evening, Tom and Kyra talk, she cooks a meal, they end up in bed and they talk some more. What do they talk about? His business and frustrations, their past, her work, Alice and more. Underneath what some might view as trivial, there is a conversation about society’s values and individual choices.
The play ends with Edward visiting the next morning and bringing Kyra something that she has said that she had missed from her more affluent past.
It would be easy to stack the deck against either of the two main characters. After all, Tom is the capitalist with little interest in social issues and a lack of compassion for or interest in the poor. He views them as often unworthy. Kyra could be viewed as a “home wrecker” who befriended the wife and children while committing adultery.
Yet Hare does NOT stack the deck against either character. These are just human beings complete with human flaws. So as the talk goes on, your sympathies switch back and forth. Kyra can be self-righteous and is perhaps hiding from the world and real relationships. Tom is struggling with guilt and feelings of loss.
Of the two, I find both this time and last time, that I am more sympathetic to Tom than Kyra. He seems like the more feeling person. He seems more generous in spirit and emotions than Kyra. She appears more interested in “humanity” in the abstract than in true relationships with individuals.
Everything about this production is top notch. The set by Bob Crowley perfectly captures a’70s era concrete flat that is cold, small and unattractive. You can see the balconies and lights from the neighboring apartments. Paul Arditti who did the sound gives us the noise from other flats and the streets– barking dogs, crying children and an annoying door buzzer. The lighting by Natasha Katz has that flat white light so prevalent in the apartments of that era. It makes things seem both less attractive and colder.
Stephen Daldry has directed this production with a fine hand. He develops both the underlying sense that these two people belong together AND the understanding that they cannot move beyond their positions, almost bunkers. For Tom is as self-protecting as Kyra though he is making an effort to break out.
So let’s look at the performances. Matthew Beard as Edward projects the angry know-it-all youth and shows hints of what his father must have been like at that age. But the show belongs to Nighy and Mulligan.
At first, since I had just seen Nighy in two films — the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films — it took me a few minutes to get into his performance. His Tom is a tightly wound cat — constant motion– filled with nervous energy that wants to escape the limits of Kyra’s small apartment. He can be defensive and also know how to attack. But underneath it all, I sensed a lonely and frightened man. In the tender moments he touched my heart. Mulligan’s Kyra is much calmer but just as determined to protect herself and attack when feeling cornered.
When Tom leaves and soon after Edward arrives with breakfast, I felt so sad for both Tom and Kyra. He would have done that for her but instead she has chosen to forego it and to also settle for a life that may be rewarding but is emotionally a desert.
Skylight is a limited run through June 21. Go see it. Tickets are available through Telecharge. It is at the John Golden Theatre on W. 45th Street.