'Skylight': Theater Review

Skylight Still - H 2015
John Haynes

Skylight Still - H 2015

Finely tuned performances from an impeccable cast help offset the editorializing in this nonetheless compelling play

Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy sift through the past in Stephen Daldry's deluxe revival of David Hare's 1995 drama about the divisions of post-Thatcher Britain.

The last time Bill Nighy displayed his rangy yet precision-tooled physicality, his world-weary vocal and facial expressivity and his needling intellect on Broadway was in 2006 in The Vertical Hour. In that otherwise disappointing follow-up to Stuff Happens, playwright David Hare continued his reflection on the personal and political consequences of war, albeit with less incisiveness. It's a pleasure to have the British actor back, and in top form, in the far superior 1995 Hare play Skylight, which also to some degree is about individual versus collective responsibility. Directed with probing clarity by Stephen Daldry, the beautifully acted revival pits Nighy against an equally compelling Carey Mulligan.

The excellence of the production — which transfers intact from London and also includes Matthew Beard (The Imitation Game) in the small but essential role of the anxious 18-year-old son of Nighy's well-heeled restaurateur — goes a long way toward finding balance in the play. While it has a terrific first act, Skylight ultimately works better as a complex relationship postmortem than as an issues debate about class, privilege and social conscience in a country of chasmic income inequality. But even when Hare stops inferring his point and starts using his characters as mouthpieces, this is riveting stuff, its commentary on the wealth divide as relevant now as it was in the immediate post-Thatcher years.

Set in the early 1990s, the play unfolds over a single snowy winter's night in the Northwest London flat of schoolteacher Kyra Hollis (Mulligan). Designer Bob Crowley's evocative set floats walls on and off so that the action plays out within the skeletal frame of the no-frills apartment, with the slab-concrete landing and facing residential tower block crowding in on the shabby living space. Given the close scrutiny to which Kyra's life choices will be subjected, the drabness and claustrophobia of her chosen habitat add both to the character's conviction and to the increasingly blunt accusations of martyrdom leveled at her.

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She is visited, in deftly handled scenes that bookend the play, by 18-year-old Edward Sergeant (Beard), whose mother has died of cancer and whose father has become even more emotionally distant in the year since. There are notes of reproach in the way Edward questions Kyra about abruptly walking out three years earlier on his family, with whom she had been living and working for several years.

Hare is particularly astute in his observation of this character's conflicted feelings about his upper-middle-class background — manifested in his sanctimonious view of his father's sense of entitlement, his complacency about his own more evolved psychological health, and via such patronizing comments to Kyra as, "I think in a way you’re so lucky, living like this." Beard superbly nails Edward's awkwardness and immaturity, allowing glimpses of both his needy vulnerability and his potential for exactly the same kind of clueless arrogance about the lives of the have-nots that he criticizes in his father.

The similarities between father and son become more apparent when Tom (Nighy) shows up unannounced soon after Edward leaves. Both men are lanky and almost febrile in their physical intensity, each of them prowling the space and taking ownership of it in his own way.

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It becomes apparent, even before Kyra's brittle chilliness has given way to the unmistakably relaxed body language of past intimacy, that she and Tom were lovers. The circumstances of their relationship, and the reason it ended, are revealed in gradual fragments of information. This happens as Tom compulsively paces the apartment like an animal in an enclosure, knocking back glass after glass of whiskey while Kyra throws together a spaghetti dinner. The sound and smell of onions, garlic and chili simmering provides a nice counterpoint of domesticity to a rapport that has acquired the cautious distance of mutual disappointment.

In terms of set-up, the writing is razor-sharp, slyly identifying the parallels as well as the differences among the three characters. Edward grew up with money and has come to be suspicious of its advantages. Tom is a self-made man who came from nothing and built a restaurant empire, giving him a typical insensitivity, perhaps even a disdain, for what he considers the unenterprising poor. Kyra, like Edward, grew up in comfort but fled first from her uptight solicitor father, and then later from the false sense of security she had built with Tom.

As they sort through the debris of their relationship during the long night of recriminations and regrets, the focus turns repeatedly to Kyra's motives. Not only did she seek employment far beneath her academic qualifications, but she also took a teaching job in the toughest East End school she could find and then took up residence in an even worse area. While her commitment to teaching is genuine, her romanticized account of the bus journey to and from work, listening in on conversations in which she notes, "what extraordinary courage, what perseverance most people need just to get on with their lives," makes her seem almost as patronizing and lacking in self-awareness as Edward.

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However, the debate becomes less nuanced as Tom starts calling her out on her claims of fulfillment, and what he sees as her hypocrisy and misguided need for atonement. And even if she budges enough to acknowledge some truth in his words, his refusal to admit fault in his attitudes toward the under-privileged leaves no mystery as to where Hare's moral sympathies lie. The playwright's hand is too frequently visible as he traces the clashing values that threaten to keep the two key characters apart. But Mulligan and Nighy make them into people far richer and more real than mere opposing political viewpoints, and their inevitable separation is wrenching.

Nighy's extensive association with Hare includes playing Tom in a return London engagement of Skylight in 1997, when he was not yet 50. At 65, he's probably a tad too old to play the role opposite Mulligan. However, the three-decade age difference adds interesting layers to Kyra's daddy complex, and Nighy projects such unforced charm and wit that it's easy to imagine him seducing a smart, attractive girl in her twenties. The actor has a peerless way with Hare's caustic dialogue; he's magnetic in sardonic mode, when feigning indifference, in sputtering moments of rage, or letting down his guard to show his creeping desperation. Just watching Nighy's rubber limbs in constant motion as he explores Kyra's apartment, shuffling chairs back and forth with a dancer's agility, or sidling up to the kitchen bench to express his disapproval of her cooking technique, is mesmerizing.

Mulligan is more contained but no less commanding. She's watchful, controlled and wary, almost as if Kyra has played out this encounter many times in her head. And yet she's unable to deny a deep affection for Tom that lingers as undiminished as the hurt. If restless physicality and verbal dexterity are the signature traits of Nighy's performance, it's Mulligan's stillness and emotional transparency, battling with pride and anger, that distinguish her fine work, even navigating some of Hare's speechier passages with naturalness.

Daldry has drawn three exquisite performances from his cast, and they lock together both in sharp contrast and in melancholy harmony with one another. His elegant direction mirrors the supple modulations of Natasha Katz's somber lighting, as evening turns to night and then to the uncertain renewal of morning.

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bill Nighy, Matthew Beard

Director: Stephen Daldry

Playwright: David Hare

Set & costume designer: Bob Crowley

Lighting designer: Natasha Katz

Music: Paul Englishby

Sound designer: Paul Arditti

Executive producers: Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnston

Presented by Robert Fox, Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Roger Berlind, William Berlind, Roy Furman, Jon B. Platt, The Shubert Organization, Stephanie P. McClelland, Catherine Adler, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Scott M. Delman, Heni Koenigsberg, Spring Sirkin, Stuart Thompson, True Love Productions, The Araca Group, Carlos Arana, David Mirvish