Among its many accomplishments, David Hare’s “Skylight” cleanly brushes aside two of the more onerous notions about Broadway today, the first being that serious drama is best left to the nonprofit houses, the second that the British have little to offer American audiences beyond demented singing divas and falling chandeliers. A play of uncommon richness, insight and humanity and a production that boasts two of the finest performances to hit New York in recent years “Skylight” could melt away much of the cynicism aimed these days at Broadway simply by winning an audience with its fiercely intelligent and uncompromising devotion to and here’s a concept words.
“Language belongs to the past,” mourns the play’s gruffly eloquent protagonist (if indeed the work’s complicated layers allow any of its three characters to be pro- or antagonist). The character, played by the wonderful Michael Gambon with a grace and poignancy matched by that of co-star Lia Williams, couldn’t be more wrong.
Essentially a two-hour series of conversations, “Skylight,” as written by Hare and directed by Richard Eyre, has the pacing and texture of any plot-driven drama, its movement coming from an almost methodical peeling back of the illusions and defenses its characters have devised. Imagine being given the opportunity to thrash out some unfinished business with a long-ago lover, finishing only when something approaching truth is left when sky light fills a dark room. Hare has done more than imagine it: He’s put it onstage.
Williams plays Kyra Hollis, a 30-year-old teacher living in an impoverished neighborhood in north London, selflessly devoting her life to poor, uninterested students in a mostly futile search for “one really good pupil.” An anachronism in an age of self-interest and greed, Kyra lives a resigned, lonely life in a low-rent flat (John Gunter’s set is the production’s only misstep, dominated as it is by a large, picture-window scrim against the flat’s back wall, allowing the audience, although apparently not the characters, to see a rather unconvincing but nonetheless intrusive skyline).
Kyra’s modest home fails miserably in keeping out the winter chill, or visitors for that matter: The first to arrive on a snowy night is Edward Sergeant (Christian Camargo), the 18-year-old son of the married man with whom Kyra had an intense six-year affair several years prior. That man is Tom (Gambon), a 50-year-old restaurateur whose financial success has done little to help him over the grief of losing both his wife (to cancer) and his beloved mistress.
Edward has come to plead for Kyra’s help in stirring Tom out of his mean, guilt-ridden grief. Shortly after Edward leaves, unsuccessful in his entreaties, Tom himself shows up at Kyra’s apartment. Big, coarse and with all the smug satisfaction of a self-made man, Tom arrives with the simple pronouncement, “I thought it was time.”
Time or not, Tom and Kyra plunge themselves back to their shared past as they rehash, have sex, and rehash some more, stripping away each other’s convenient memories of what happened and why. They don’t do so without reluctance: “Don’t you think I have enough memories?” Kyra asks when Tom invites himself to dinner. “Why should I want any more?”
Had Hare written a conventional he-said/she-said melodrama, “Skylight” would lose its audience fairly quickly. What he’s done instead is to use the structure as a means of examining in relentless, unsparing detail the ways in which people romanticize their pasts, their loves, even themselves. No one, certainly neither character, is spared this vivisection: What seems on the surface to be a showdown between a greedy, conservative businessman and an idealistic, liberal do-gooder is gradually revealed to be much more complex. Audience sympathy shifts from one character to the other and back again, with Hare and Eyre in total control of the emotional tides.
Not to mention Gambon and Williams, both of whom bring an amazing command of talent to their Broadway debuts. Gambon, an Irishman revered on the London stage , gives his rough-hewn character a grace that goes beyond the physical (although even that, given the actor’s hulking size, would be accomplishment enough). Despite an appearance that betrays every minute of the character’s 50 years, Gambon is utterly believable in the lasting enchantment he casts over the much younger (and, with Williams in the role, infinitely more beautiful) Kyra. Even at his most atrociously boorish told he should listen to a woman’s problems before bedding her, he responds, “Listening is halfway to begging” Gambon’s Tom seems in full possession of a heart long past broken. When sobs, loud or silent, erupt from somewhere deep in the actor, we’re stung though not surprised.
But Gambon couldn’t carry this play alone “Skylight” requires an even match and Williams proves every bit his equal. By turns soul-shakingly vulnerable and implacably merciless, Williams is thoroughly convincing even when delivering one of the playwright’s trademark political diatribes (especially one in defense of society’s much-maligned do-gooders under attack from self-serving politicians and journalists, apparently a problem as much in Britain as here). That newcomer Camargo, a recent Juilliard grad appearing as young Edward, holds his own in his comparatively brief scenes with Williams is high praise indeed.
In fact, it’s the gangly Edward who delivers the final touch of grace that Hare imparts to his ravaged characters in a brief scene that serves as a coda of hope, however vague and uncertain. After all the philosophical sparring and political debating is laid to rest, “Skylight” seems more than anything else to be a play about the incalculable loss of love. Hare’s words will resonate long after this limited-run production has packed up and moved out.