The fierce pas de deux of love and loss and anguish executed by Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy in “Skylight” leaves you breathless — and wondering how they can sustain this level of emotional intensity throughout the show’s 13-week Broadway run. David Hare’s 1995 drama, which floored West End audiences when director Stephen Daldry staged it last year with the same great cast, registers as a character-flaying study of ex-lovers whose lives and sensibilities have diverged since they parted. But deep down, it’s a scathing censure of the Thatcher government’s political legacy of social inequality and economic injustice.
If there were a Tony Award category for Most Depressing Stage Setting, Bob Crowley would win in a walk for his dismal visual of a 1990s council estate (we call them “projects”) in a desperately poor London neighborhood in the dead of winter. In the background, Natasha Katz’s skillfully choreographed lighting of tower-block apartment windows and the piercing sounds of crying babies and barking dogs provided by Paul Arditti complete this dreary portrait of human pond life at the bottom of the social pool.
Kyra Hollis, a 30-ish schoolteacher played with modest mien and subtle intelligence by Carey Mulligan, lives in obvious poverty in a squalid cold-water flat with peeling wallpaper, battered furnishings and grotty, outdated kitchen appliances. (It’s a world away from the Great Gatsby society the actress gracefully inhabited as that pampered darling, Daisy Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s film.)
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Kyra is in the kitchenette, preparing a miserable dinner of dry pasta and canned sauce, when a visitor bursts in the door. He’s Edward Sergeant, the barely adult son of her former lover, Tom, and in the animated performance given by Matthew Beard (an impressive newcomer, seen in a featured role in “The Imitation Game”), he’s far more than the messenger who delivers exposition. In communicating the news that his father, Kyra’s former employer and lover, has been out of his mind with grief ever since Edward’s mother died, Beard sensitively bares the boy’s own wounded heart and his own desperate need for comfort.
Nevertheless, having delivered that woeful message, Edward makes himself scarce so his imposing father, Tom Sergeant (Nighy), can make his thrilling entrance.
Kyra practically jumps out of her skin when Tom comes through the door, as do we. Nighy can be an aggressively physical actor (maybe not in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” but he certainly shivered our timbers as Davy Jones in “Pirates of the Caribbean”), and here he blows through the room with the impact of a gale force wind. As befits a self-made millionaire who owns a string of high-end restaurants, he’s dressed to kill in a luxurious fitted topcoat over a trimly tailored suit, and his contemptuous glance around Kyra’s squalid room would peel off what remains of the wallpaper.
Before Tom has even shrugged off that cashmere topcoat, he’s prowling the room and poking into Kyra’s business. In one alarmingly intimate (but amusing) move, he even takes over the kitchen and tries to make something palatable of her pathetic meal. In these close quarters there’s no room for this charming bully to give full expression to his powerful persona, so Nighy brilliantly makes do with Baroque, balletic moves that are eloquently expressive and oddly seductive.
But Kyra, who obviously knows this man well, has both the insight and wit to deflate him. After accusing him of entering her home “like a f—ing stormtrooper,” she pointedly asks if he’s parked his tanks in the street. And, lest he miss the point, “You always were excessively manly.”
Tom is much too sly to retaliate by attacking her masochistic decision to live in slum housing and teach at a school where the students joke around with a teacher by breaking into her apartment and roasting her cat in the oven. But huddled in his overcoat in her unheated apartment, he can’t resist a dig at her “style choice to live in Outer Siberia.”
It’s in the thrust and parry of dueling moments like this (rather than in the more literal arguments hammered out in the second act) that director Daldry draws out the nuances of Hare’s political brief.
The duelists themselves enjoy their witty power struggle, but remain wary of full exposure. Although Tom is finally ready to acknowledge his guilt about the six-year affair that destroyed his marriage, Nighy makes sure that he remains the same damnably attractive sexist pig and unrepentant capitalist bandit he always was. And while Kyra insists on flaunting the strength of character she’s earned by living and working with the despised and disenfranchised poor, Mulligan takes care to guard the electrifying moment when she admits her abiding love for this impossible man.
The preachy ideological debate that Hare sets up between capitalist political power and liberal moral superiority isn’t as rigidly schematic in performance. Mulligan offers ironic glimpses of the sanctimonious prissiness buried under Kyra’s pious declarations of political idealism. (Surely even a poorly paid math teacher — the privileged daughter of a successful solicitor, mind you — can afford some industrial-strength cleaning agents for that filthy kitchen.) For his turn, Nighy allows Tom both the courage of his own self-serving Tory convictions and the grace to feel guilty for them.
Whatever the takeaway for audiences hankering for a good political brawl, it’s the tragic clash of human emotions that really stings.