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Skylight: A British Argument May Not Win an American Audience

04/03/2015 02:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015

David Hare writes political plays, so if you go to see Skylight, be prepared. But he also tries to write about real human beings, and that's not easy. How much you appreciate this current Broadway production of Skylight may depend both on whether or not you find this play's politics interesting or a bore, and whether or not you find yourself interested in these two very specific human beings.

There are some terrific moments in this production where British actress Carey Mulligan owns the stage without saying a word, feelings of loss and guilt and frustration flashing across her face like waves hitting a rocky shore. And there are some fine moments for Bill Nighy, playing her much older former lover Tom, when his desire to dominate every situation in business, life, and politics cuts past the apron of the stage and electrifies the audience. But in between these moments is a play, and it very well may be a play that appeals less to American audiences than to our cousins across the pond.

First, the politics. This play has been referred to as a "Thatcherite" play by reviewers of the original 1995 production and the 2014 West End production. It's a play where two characters, a man and a woman, each represent an approach to socialism in the 1990s. The man, an entrepreneur pushing 60, whose entire identity seemingly revolves around his self-made success in the restaurant business, is rich. He has a chauffeur who drives him around in a Mercedes. He doesn't much care what happens to the poor. The woman, a teacher pushing 30, has chosen to teach in what Americans would term an inner-city school, and has also chosen to live in a high crime neighborhood, in a very cheap apartment. There are hints that the woman "could have taught at any university," and that she doesn't really have to live in such a bad neighborhood. The man is conservative, the woman, liberal. These facts are central to the play.

There are speeches where Mulligan's character, Kyra Hollis, defends social workers and teachers who work with the poor, as though their work needs defending, as though their work were somehow under siege by the culture. That may have been true in 1995 in some high Tory environments in Britain, and may even be true today in Britain to a lesser extent, but these political arguments seem much less interesting in an American context today. There are many things we Yanks fight about around the dinner table, but whether or not one ought to help the poor by becoming a teacher is not one of them. A curious amount of stage time is spent on this argument, which is not engaging if it is not really an argument.

If you set aside the political and just look at the personal, this is a very strange play. A wealthy businessman, Tom Sergeant, played with swagger and charm by Bill Nighy, has a six-year affair with one of his very young employees, Kyra Hollis, played with angst and quiet fortitude by Carey Mulligan. The only reason this affair ended was because Tom's wife found out about it. The much younger woman, Kyra, suddenly realizes she's hurt this older woman, who has been kind to her, by sleeping with her husband for six years, and is mortified. But she doesn't seem to have been mortified during the six-year period she was sneaking around with this much older man, behind the back of a woman who was her friend. Old Tom sees his wife's discovery as an opportunity to dump his wife of many years, with whom he has raised a child, to run off with the young girl. The older man is sad that the young girl turns him down and leaves, and so remains married to his age-appropriate wife. The old wife gets cancer and dies, and Tom feel sad and guilty. At the start of the play, Tom's son goes around to his father's old girlfriend and suggests she should cheer his old Dad up. The old man goes to see his old flame, who's still 30 years younger than he is. They fight, and have make up sex, and fight some more.

At this point, I don't identify with the sad older man. I don't mind him being sad, or feeling guilty, or not getting to live happily ever after with the young girl. Perhaps because I'm a liberal myself, I am supposed to sympathize with the girl, who is now thirty. She's chosen to live in a bad neighborhood and teach the underprivileged. Good for her. But why should I be emotionally invested in her? She seems like a liberal stereotype, and the speeches the playwright has given her don't help belay this notion. There's nothing about her background growing up, any backstory at all, to give us a hint as to why she went from the Other Woman for an old Rich Guy to some sort of socialist Joan of Arc, unless she does this out of sheer guilt.

If I felt any huge attraction between these two, any sense of tragedy that they are (spoiler alert) never getting back together, I might have been swept away by the acting, which is uniformly interesting. It's the play that keeps getting in the way, as the play keeps telling the audience that this is a play about politics, about class, about the mean conservative and the loving liberal.

I must confess that I don't understand the title of the play, which points me back to the unseen and unsung woman who really suffered because of the behavior of her lying husband and lying friend. Bill Nighy's character has a speech where he talks about his dying wife, and it's not a pretty picture, as he blames her for dying in such a way as to make him feel guilty about his misdeeds. The man is, in other words, a child. It's all about him. The skylight is what his wife looks up at as she spends several years dying at home, in bed. What this has to say about the old man and the young girl, or about conservatives and liberals, or Maggie Thatcher, is beyond me.

Did the age-appropriate wife drive her poor husband to this six-year affair with a very young, vulnerable employee, who also happens to look as smashing as any movie star? As far as the audience knows, the age-appropriate wife might have been a total saint, her only crime being her interest in gardening, which is good for a laugh in Hare's play.

It's as if an American had written a play about a six-year affair between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, where everybody made fun of Hillary. And after Hillary's agonizing cancer death, an unrepentant Bill went to Monica Lewinsky's apartment to sweep her off her feet. It's a hoary old trope, the old goat and the young thing. Perhaps if I had a drop's worth of sympathy for Bill Nighy's character, I would have been as enraptured with the play as the preview audience that gave him and his acting partner Carey Mulligan a partial standing ovation. Then again, it's hard to tell how much a Broadway audience is applauding because they've seen a great play, or applauding because they've seen a well-known film actor.

And in case you're wondering, I'm not an angry divorced woman whose husband ran off with the nanny. But I am a 21st century woman without much sympathy for an unlikable old man's pursuit of a girl. And shorn of any political depth, that's what Skylight seemed to me.