What a difference 20 years makes. That’s about how long it's been since I first saw Skylight, when the Yellow Pages the characters discuss were still a thing. I didn’t remember all that much about it, other than that it starred a pre-Dumbledore Michael Gambon, in his first and thus far only Broadway appearance, and Lia Williams, who has graced our stages only one time since, in the 2011 revival of Arcadia. For a David Hare play, I recalled it being romantic. And it was one act.
I was wrong on the last count. It’s two acts, a meal, like the spaghetti and garlic that’s prepared on stage and sort of eaten. I think I wanted it to be one act; it is long-winded, as Hare can be, and I felt drained as I left the theater this time around. But it’s also more than merely “romantic” – it’s fiercely, desperately romantic, and it pushes certain buttons. When I saw it in 1996, I was much the same age as Kyra (Carey Mulligan), and I didn’t get why she didn’t just send her old windbag of an ex, Tom (Bill Nighy), packing when he showed up unannounced at her council flat, which was only a little more decrepit than my studio apartment at the time. Get on with it.
Today, I am that old windbag, in a way. I fully understand why Tom, a well-to-do widower looking to rekindle the spark with his old flame, hangs around. That said, I did not understand why his disappointing son, Edward (Matthew Beard), who first approaches Kyra after her abrupt and lengthy disappearance from their lives, was acting so jerkily in the play’s first scene. Then Nighy turns up. If his predecessor in the role was something of a George C. Scott, a force of nature unleashed in a small and frigid apartment, Nighy, at age 65 (nine years older than Gambon when he played it), is our oldest living hipster, and Beard was simply following suit. He’s a terribly mannered performer, elongating his phrasing and pauses, and moving with what can only be called a spastic grace. He’s also terribly endearing. Nighy gets a lot more laughs than Gambon did in the part; then again, Gambon wasn’t trying for them. The joking is all part of this Tom’s arsenal of charm, which includes his bountiful creature comforts, everything that Kyra, monkishly, lacks. He’s difficult not to succumb to.
But Kyra, still burdened by his wife’s discovery of their affair, is determined not to budge from her austere life as an urban schoolteacher on the other side of the tracks in London. Tom chips away at her resolve, wheedling, conniving and trying to catch her out in hypocrisy. Mulligan, who can be misused onscreen, here projects a delicate strength, and a resolve summoned forth in a shattering sequence where she defends her post-affair choices and profession. Director Stephen Daldry has given Skylight a bigger frame than I recall from 1996, notably a set (by Bob Crowley) and sound design (by Paul Arditti) that encompass more of Kyra’s surroundings. Crucially, we have been given two actors whose hearts bleed and break over the course of one turbulent evening, and we see in them some of the frailties, missteps and small victories that make up our lives.