The waft of vegetable aromatics infusing a homemade Bolognese in the Golden Theatre on Broadway isn’t the only thing that will fully arouse your senses in the magnificent revival of David Hare’s Skylight. This relationship drama, last seen in New York in 1996 with actors Lia Williams and the recently-retired Michael Gambon, is the kind of (mostly) two-hander that has the ability to turn into either a soap opera or a boulevard comedy in the wrong hands. Under the expert guidance of director Stephen Daldry (The Audience) and its luminous, impassioned stars, Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy, the production becomes–to get back to the food–nothing short of a five-star meal.
Kyra (Mulligan), residing in a ramshackle Kensal Rise flat, is prepping a supper for herself–hence the Bolognese–when she is dropped on by Edward, the 18-year-old son (Matthew Beard) of her much-older former lover, Tom (Bill Nighy). Kyra, a public-school teacher happy living somewhat below her means (“here, we even have indoor fog”, she quips at one point), is a big-sister-like model of comfort to the teen, who is often on the outs with his rigid father. But when Tom himself makes an unannounced visit later that night, some time after his wife has passed, Kyra is confronted with the prospect of answering to the motives of her flee from their adulterous affair. Much like the pot being stirred downstage, the subtext boils over, as Kyra and Tom talk circles around trying not to make history repeat itself with a relationship that always seemed doomed from the start, however heated it became.
One of the most refreshing aspects of Hare’s play has been the casual attitude toward the age difference in the central couple; their timespan in lived years seems to be the least controversial piece of their relationship puzzle, which includes vastly divergent views on the social classes. Nighy and Mulligan have more pronounced visual age contrast than their predecessors, but the minute they open their mouths to speak, those thoughts fall away. The subtle register of two beings connecting in a completely intimate, direct way, with little regard to age or experience, is Skylight’s raison d’être, and the leads charge with it.
Squirming through Bob Crowley’s vividly-imagined scenic hovel (dust actually blows off Kyra’s dining table when an object is placed on it), Mulligan and Nighy, uniquely in-the-moment and riveting, actually create a more eventful, varied play than Hare might have even concocted. The politically-minded playwright, a master wordsmith, often has a tendency toward the oratory (very much evidenced in Nighy’s last Broadway outing, Hare’s The Vertical Hour), and even Skylight, with its modest romantic bromides, demonstrates the inclination. (Kyra has a rousing, if writerly, Act II speech decrying the upper-class ignorance of those in great need that Mulligan positively nails.)
But these two remarkable performers have a performing style unto their own that creates an alarming specificity–Mulligan, alert and fetching, plays Kyra’s insecurities as both known and unknown and her facial registers are a model of expertly demarcated economy, while the long-limbed, handsome Nighy, who thrillingly engages beyond the fourth wall in a way that always seems completely organic, has a steadfast theatrical unpredictability (just marvel at the way he announces extra syllables into the word “entrepreneur”). Despite their wonderful high-profile film and TV accomplishments, there’s something about the live stage that puts these two on an entirely new plane. And one would be remiss not to mention Beard’s marvelous supporting turn as Edward; in only two scenes, he shrewdly lays bare the jittery energy of an awkward, ingenuous teen.
For a two-hour-plus play in which two people essentially navigate a small room via conversation, Daldry’s production is notably fleet, with very little filler mussing up its simple environs save for Paul Englishby’s moody incidental music. And that is precisely all one needs. Even the play’s title holds a great incongruity this time around since, given the wattage of its two resplendent headliners, this Skylight is truly lit from within. A