Some works of art age better than others. You’d think that the plays of David Hare, who has a fondness for tackling issues of the moment, would be victims of a quick sell-by date. “Stuff Happens,” his best-known work, is a frozen-in-time look at the George W. Bush administration during the Iraq War. More than a decade later, it would play like a museum piece.
“Skylight,” though, stands alone among Hare’s works. Its story of former lovers who spend a cold London winter night arguing about issues of class, privilege, entitlement and compassion even as they briefly reunite seems as fresh and vital today as it did in 1995, when the play debuted. In fact, as Britain works through the implications and complications of Brexit, the sharply opposing views of Tom, a 50-ish owner of upscale restaurants and hotels, and Kyra, a former employee who’s 20 years his junior, carry an added urgency.
Of course, the debates that attract Hare, brought to life through the verbal sparring of Tom and Kyra, are perennial hot-button topics. How much should we care about the underprivileged? Is it better to give them a hand or let them fend for themselves? Should we feel guilty about wealth and conspicuous consumption? Is the gulf between the haves and the have-nots a symptom of societal dysfunction or simply the natural order of things?
Hare packages these themes in a way that serves the story and characters well. Tom and Kyra are both satisfyingly fleshed out, and the playwright reveals their back-stories naturally over the course of an eventful and passionate evening. In the end, you find yourself illogically rooting for them to get back together, even though it’s obvious they’ll never see eye to eye on much.
The play begins with an awkward visit by Tom’s teenage son, Edward. Underneath his nervous bonhomie, the kid is agitated, and we soon find out why. Years before, Kyra had been a major part of his life – in addition to being his father’s lover and employee, she served as a beloved babysitter for Edward and his sister, and she was close friends with Tom’s wife, who didn’t know about Kyra’s intimate relationship with Tom. Kyra left their lives suddenly, unable to handle the complications of the situation. Edward still harbors some resentment that she disappeared without saying goodbye.
The real reason for Edward’s visit is to relay some bad news about his father. Tom’s wife has died, and for the past year he has been unable to process his grief. The situation is driving Edward crazy, and he sees only one solution: a reunion between Tom and Kyra.
When Tom finally does appear, we feel as if we already know him. He’s a restless soul, constantly assessing and criticizing, and it doesn’t take long for him to question Kyra’s downwardly mobile lifestyle choices. She lives in a dilapidated flat in a poor part of town, and she teaches hard-case kids in a school that struggles to give them the education they so desperately need.
Tom doesn’t see the point. Why would Kyra give up her life of luxury and financial opportunity?
By this point, it’s easy for us to see why. Kyra’s after more something more spiritually rewarding, and she yearned to escape Tom’s domineering personality.
The back-and-forth between the former lovers is adroit, clever and convincing – Hare is a persuasive and naturalistic creator of characters – but you can’t help suspecting what side the playwright is on. Tom’s defense of capitalism, consumerism and the primacy of the wealthy seldom ring true. Kyra makes all the good points.
But this play lives or dies on the strength of the performances and the credibility of the Tom-Kyra relationship, and in this production, director Oanh Nguyen and his cast hit most of the right notes.
As Tom, Steve Marvel has the tall, thin physique and scarecrow-ish presence of Bill Nighy, who gave convincing life to Tom in the 2015 Broadway revival of “Skylight.” Marvel captures Tom’s restlessness and underlying loneliness subtly. His quiet desperation comes out in the beats between Tom’s confidently expressed opinions.
Jessica Erin Martin’s Kyra is a more delicate creation, although in her own way Kyra is stronger than Tom. She’s a compassionate and centered woman, but her fits of passion are what bring out her best qualities. Kyra’s not above flinging a drawer full of cutlery across the room. Martin balances Kyra’s calm inner determination and her headstrong feelings nicely.
As Edward, Sam Bullington is the only weak link in the cast. His British accent is unconvincing at best, and he overdoes the character’s awkward coltishness.
Nguyen’s production team has made some odd choices. Ryan Brodkin’s sound design is suitably evocative and yearning, but Bruce Goodrich’s set is a confusing series of transparent walls that undermine the naturalism of Hare’s tone and sometimes confuse the narrative.
All in all, though, Nguyen and his team make a convincing case for reviving “Skylight” now. Its issues resonate in enticing new ways, and this production is a reminder that it’s a durable work worthy of reviving – maybe not a masterpiece, but a great vehicle for two performers who can convey the magnetism and frustrations of a powerful attraction between opposites.
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected].