John Golden Theatre
252 W. 45th Street
David Hare’s plays require a special depth and commitment from their actors in order to be anything more than left-wing agitprop, which is his predilection and specialty. In his best and most noted work, Plenty, the anti-heroine Susan Traherne tells off the complacent British bourgeoisie around her in an increasingly erratic, mentally unhinged way. The excitement of Plenty lies in the fact that Susan is right about most of what she’s saying but sometimes cruelly wrong about the way she says it. Plenty has a kind of variety and challenge that most of Hare’s other work for the theater lacks, and that would include Skylight, a modest play from the mid-90s that depends nearly entirely in this current production on star performances from Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy.
Mulligan’s Kyra is a classic Hare heroine—an outcast who sticks up for her leftist principles and social engagement at the expense of all love and personal pleasure. She is living in such a drab, ugly apartment that it seems as if it has been chosen for its ugliness, for its air of self-denial. In the first scene, a young boy named Edward (Matthew Beard) comes to visit her, and we learn that she once carried on an affair with his father Tom (Nighy), a posh restaurateur, right under the nose of his mother, Alice. When Alice found out about the affair, Kyra bolted, never to return or to explain herself. Edward tells Kyra that Alice has just died of cancer, and that Tom isn’t doing well.
But when Tom himself comes to call, only Nighy’s habitual twitching and wincing lets us know that this man is very unhappy underneath his privileged, arrogant manners. Nighy is giving a very mannered performance, as is his wont, but he effectively brings most of the sympathy to Tom in the second act, when he engages in a long debate with Kyra about her life and her choices. Mulligan has the perpetual look of a kicked puppy, and so she has a hard time getting as angry and violent as Kyra needs to be. When Kyra throws a whole drawer of utensils in Tom’s general direction, it feels like something the script has told Mulligan to do, not something that feels natural to her.
Mulligan’s moist, victimized manner throws the whole play to Nighy’s Tom when it should really be more of a contest between them. Kyra needs to be a bit more of a strong-hearted bitch, something closer to Susan Traherne in Plenty, for the meanings in the admittedly-thin material to be activated. As it is, it is perfectly enjoyable to watch Mulligan and Nighy do their stuff, but the play itself has no bite or sting in their hands. They seem resolutely separate on stage, when the writing is indicating that they are supposed to have powerful feelings for each other. And so a small play of ideas becomes merely a mismatched star vehicle only.