It may not at first make sense that two such fundamentally different acting styles as Bill Nighy’s and Carey Mulligan’s should co-exist in — and mutually enhance — one play. And yet here they are in David Hare’s Skylight, a monkey and a moonbeam, somehow bringing the same story to thrilling life. Nighy, as will be obvious to anyone who saw him in Love Actually or as Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, is the monkey, or perhaps better to call him a Catherine wheel of tics and poses and stutters and quirks. “Mannered” is not a strong enough word to describe the way he creates the illusion of character from a million incessant, if apparently spontaneous, affectations. (At several points, he struts across the stage sideways, his long legs pointing into the wings while his face stares down the audience.) Meanwhile, as she did in An Education and in the 2008 Broadway production The Seagull, Mulligan creates the illusion of character with no affectations at all. In fact, she hardly seems to be doing anything — and then suddenly tears will fling themselves from her eyes, or a smile will rise from some depth to the surface and recede again. She is as rivetingly, radically transparent as he is hilariously baroque, but in the end that’s only fitting; the play, one of Hare’s best, is about the gap between what’s reconcilable and what’s not.
Nighy plays Tom Sergeant, a London restaurateur who, not unlike Terence Conran, expanded a local business into an international hospitality empire during the Thatcherite 1980s. His swagger and entitlement will be no less familiar to those who experienced that decade under Reagan: He is offhandedly offensive (crypto-racist, semi-sexist) in a way that should make him repellent but — because the disdain is almost universal — somehow makes him magnetic instead. Certainly he once magnetized Mulligan’s character, Kyra Hollis, who met him at the beginning of his rise, when she was 18 and answered a “Waitress Wanted” notice. Though he was then already 40-ish and married, the two soon began an affair that lasted six years, ending only when Tom’s wife discovered the betrayal. Kyra bolted; soon after, the wife became ill with cancer and died.
Skylight is set a year after that death. It is also, significantly, about a year after Thatcher’s departure from 10 Downing Street. Though the Iron Lady is never named, Hare, abetted by Bob Crowley’s terrific scenic design, wastes no time letting us see the wreckage she left behind: Kyra now lives in a grimy, frigid apartment in a working-class housing block in northwest London. (A stage direction tells us it “seems more like Russia than England.”) It is here that Tom looks her up after three years without contact, hoping to resume their affair, this time in the open. But his plan is complicated, if not completely blocked, by differences in outlook that, once latent, are now all too obvious. While his chauffeur waits in the Mercedes downstairs, Tom, who lives in leafy Wimbledon, sniffs disapprovingly about the flat — literally, like a hound — no doubt noticing, as we do, its archeological wallpaper and air of enforced deprivation. He is more than merely saddened by Kyra’s environment; he interprets it and her new job, teaching what used to be called underprivileged kids, as a form of class betrayal:
TOM: You came out top of your year. I can’t see anything more tragic, more stupid than you sitting here and throwing your talents away.
KYRA: Am I throwing them away? I don’t think so.
TOM: Kyra, you’re teaching kids at the bottom of the heap!
KYRA: Well, exactly! I would say I was using my talents. It’s just I’m using them in a way of which you don’t approve.
This conflict is treated lightheartedly at first, in much the same bantering tone as their argument over when to fry the chilies and whether to use her cheap Parmesan cheese (which he calls a “greasy lump of crud”) for the spaghetti sauce she is preparing. (If you sit close enough, you will smell the garlic.) But Hare is offering these trappings of domestic comedy as bait; the moment their love is fully rekindled in the warmth of old familiarity it is blown out like a pilot light. For both Tom and Kyra, the idea of personal preference, whether about cookery or economics, turns out to be a cover for absolutes and refutations. We are not surprised to see Tom’s free-market realpolitik punctured in this way: Kyra nails him and his ilk as self-indulgent fat cats who, no longer content with just their wealth, now also require the pity of the poor. But we may be surprised — and if we are honest lefties, stung — by how evenhanded Hare is, letting Tom puncture Kyra’s hermetic idealism just as deftly. “Loving the people’s an easy project for you,” he says. “Loving a person ... now that’s something different.”
The play, first produced in London in 1995 and then on Broadway in 1996, has lost absolutely none of its point, and not just because some lines feel as if they could have been written in reference to current conditions.* (“You only have to say the words social worker ... probation officer ... counselor,” says Kyra, “for everyone in this country to sneer.”) The real strength of Skylight, whose title refers to a feature of that leafy Wimbledon home, lies in the way Hare has embedded its politics in its romance, and vice versa. Tom and Kyra are, at the same time, a sexy couple (despite or because of the 36-year difference in the actors’ ages) and an expression of the human hope for social reconciliation between opposing worldviews. If Skylight posits that both the romance and the reconciliation are doomed, it also acknowledges — better yet, it dramatizes — how powerfully compelling is our wish that they weren’t.
This doubleness, as well as the play’s subtle back-and-forth between comedy and something quite close to tragedy, make maintaining a suitable tone quite difficult. And Stephen Daldry’s generally excellent production does sometimes wobble. Perhaps wishing to keep as much humor going as long as possible, Daldry occasionally allows Nighy to threaten the balance by truffling too obviously for laughs with an “aren’t I awful” moue. But Mulligan, for whom comedy and tragedy are all the same, is rock-steady, and so are the technical elements; Natasha Katz’s lighting and Paul Arditti’s sound design seem to participate in the argument on equal terms with the actors. (Tom’s foppish Edwardian suit jacket and Kyra’s slippy layers of blue sweaters, again the work of Bob Crowley, could probably convey the story by themselves.) In some ways, the production may even be too good, exposing flaws in the material. As in real life, the development of its conflict is sometimes discursive and repetitive; superb naturalism will not minimize that. And the framing scenes, in which Tom’s 18-year-old son also happens to pay Kyra a visit, can seem contrived. Though Matthew Beard, as the son, offers a hilariously adolescent précis of Nighy’s style, you sense in his presence Hare’s willingness to privilege formal inevitability over character.
These are quibbles, or less than that; they are too bound up in the play’s best qualities to wish away. The son’s visits lead to a beautiful final beat that crystallizes almost literally the contradictions of Kyra’s sacrifice. And Hare’s patience with both of his main characters as they struggle to evade the fate of their relationship is a worthy corrective to the easy outs of most drama (and most politics). For such a rich entertainment — laughs, tears, flying cutlery, and all — Skylight offers a rather despairing view: the piggish right wallowing in guilt; the priggish left becoming its anger. Even where there is great love, Hare shows us, not everyone can get along.
Skylight is at the Golden Theatre through June 14.
*This sentence has been corrected to remove an incorrect reference to the Tony awards.
*A version of this article appears in the April 20, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.