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Self-Inflicted Punishments

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books and culture

Self-Inflicted Punishments

Skylight, opening on Broadway, is a modern morality tale. April 1, 2015
Arts and Culture
Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in David Hare’s Skylight

Before we had psychotropic drugs and self-help books, people could go to the theater to learn how not to behave. A Winter’s Tale teaches you not to consume yourself with jealousy. Carmen teaches you not to fool with people’s emotions. Don Giovanni teaches you not to be a narcissistic womanizer. David Hare’s Skylight, starting its second turn on Broadway this week, offers a modern moral: the price of forbidden love usually isn’t gruesome death or scarlet-letter shaming, but self-alienation.

Skylight, which debuted in London’s West End 20 years ago and ran again there last summer, has only three characters. Tom, “near 50” in the script and played by Bill Nighy of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Love Actually fame, is a restaurant and hotel entrepreneur. Carey Mulligan, lately of Inside Llewyn Davis and An Education, plays Kyra, “just past thirty,” his ex-lover and a teacher. Edward, played by Matthew Beard, is Tom’s 17-year-old son.

The play takes place over one night inside Kyra’s shabby tower-block flat in a pre-gentrified London neighborhood. The spare set—the audience can see a taped-up broken window across the street, hear dogs barking and music playing, and watch neighbors switch their lights off and on as night and morning progress—is terrific. The plot, too, is simple—but excruciating. Three years after Kyra abruptly walked out on him, Tom shows up unannounced to see, more or less, if she’ll get back together. “Missed me so badly, it’s taken you three years to get back in touch?” she asks. “I knew once I saw you, then I’d be finished. I knew I’d never be able to leave,” he answers. But Tom and Kyra had a pretty solid reason for breaking up. As she puts it: “I left because your wife discovered I’d been sleeping with you for over six years!” But Tom’s wife Alice has succumbed to cancer in the past year.

Kyra teaches low-income students and is both dedicated to this work and self-righteous about it. Tom is obliviously rich. Everyone hates bankers—a sentiment that has endured for the audience over the play’s 20-year history. But the main story is that Tom and Kyra feel terribly about what they have done to one another.

Skylight features some of the best acting you’ll ever see on Broadway, though the performances have changed slightly since last year’s London run. Both leads restrained themselves, relatively speaking, on the London stage, as if they knew that strong emotions and loud voices scare British theatergoers. In New York, they scream and yell, throwing and slamming things with more vigor. Just as in real life, some arguments go on too long. Tom’s jokes get tiresome, as does Kyra’s lack of self-awareness.

Hare treats these characters with more sympathy than Harold Pinter or Edward Albee would. In vintage Pinter and Albee, people are often motivated by low impulses: fear, cowardice, lust. By contrast, the Skylight characters’ problem is that they aren’t cynical enough; of course, if they were, they wouldn’t care so much.

Hare’s Catholic background comes through in the writing: if no one else will punish you, you’ve got to punish yourself. But mercy and forgiveness are key tenets of Catholicism, too. Tom’s son, Edward, wants to help the people closest to him, not watch them suffer more. And the audience—largely made up of older women, Broadway’s core constituency—roots for Tom and Kyra to get back together. Skylight is worth an evening out—if only to learn, perhaps uncomfortably, where your compassion lies.

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