Bill Nighy made his Broadway debut almost a decade ago in David Hare’s The Vertical Hour. He returns in Skylight, an earlier but better Hare play from 1996, and it’s cause for celebration. In a season marked by alpha stars in beta plays (Bradley Cooper in The Elephant Man; Hugh Jackman in The River), Nighy and co-star Carey Mulligan have a brilliant vehicle worthy of their complementary talents. Piloted with exceptional sensitivity by Stephen Daldry and beautifully designed by Bob Crowley and Natasha Katz, this revival is as fine as the original — while being utterly different in texture, tone and impact.
The rap against Hare in the 1990s was that his characters were little more than mouthpieces for heavy-handed political volleying. I never bought that, but Skylight turned even the naysayers around, offering a Shaw-worthy match of wits wrapped in a deeply felt love affair. Mulligan (The Great Gatsby, An Education) plays Kyra Hollis, a young schoolteacher eking out a living that barely supports her squalid flat in crummy northwest London.
On a cuttingly cold night she receives two unexpected visitors. First, Edward Sergeant (Matthew Beard, The Imitation Game) — a confused kid on the cusp of adulthood — arrives with a gift of hip-hop CDs and a muddled message about his father’s decline since the death of his mother a year ago. When he was growing up, Kyra had been part of the family and he wants to know why she disappeared.
Later that evening Tom Sergeant himself (Nighy, Marigold Hotel I & II, Pirates of The Caribbean, Love, Actually, etc.) arrives. Notwithstanding the pathetic excuse of a space heater that fails to cut through the nighttime chill, Tom’s presence instantly raises a different kind of temperature in the apartment. It has been three years since their six-year affair abruptly ended after Tom’s wife learned of it, and a year since her death. He is a chef-entrepreneur whose restaurant empire has made him very wealthy — and contemptuous of slackers who lack his fevered ambition. Kyra is equally contemptuous of his harsh arrogance in dismissing the struggling masses.
Their verbal thrusts and parries – at one point Tom remarks that, unlike her neighbors, Kyra is perhaps the only denizen of the neighborhood who actually struggled to get into it, rather than out – are unnervingly compelling. Hare (Plenty, the screenplays for The Hours, and The Reader) refuses to stack the deck, giving us full rein to fall under the spell of both Tom and Kyra as they inevitably succumb to the forces that both brought them together and tore them apart.
As a rule I don’t like comparing contemporary performances to older ones, but I think it’s useful here. Tom was originally played by Michael Gambon, who looked every inch the rough-hewn provincial whose edges have been smoothed and refined by money. Nighy couldn’t be more opposite. He exudes a to-the-manner-born elegance that’s heightened by the nervous tics of a febrile personality used to getting his way. Lia Williams played Kyra as more immediately subject to Tom’s charms, where Mulligan casts a hypnotic spell, playing combativeness and vulnerability in perfect balance.
The result is riveting, as absorbing a drama as can be seen anywhere this season, played at the highest level. Daldry also goes his own way from Nicholas Hytner’s original staging; the production strikes me as firmly grounded, certainly enhanced by Bob Crowley’s more realistic setting and perfect costumes. Natasha Katz, the lighting designer, paints an atmosphere of near desolation that nevertheless invites us inside, where it may not be warm but it is hot. Skylight is a keeper and this revival is one for the ages.