A young woman and an older man whose affair ended in a white-hot flash attempt to reconnect in David Hare’s “Skylight,” an artfully performed drama set in the 1990s in Great Britain. It’s just opened at the Golden Theatre, with its cast intact from a West End run last year.
Carey Mulligan, the Oscar-nominated actress of “An Education” -- I loved her as Daisy Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” and she’s just great here -- stars as Kyra Hollis, a well-educated upper-middle-class woman of perhaps 30 who’s now teaching disadvantaged students in East London.
On a snowy night, Kyra is visited by her former lover, a wealthy restaurateur whose wife has recently died (Bill Nighy, of “Love Actually” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” films). All the action in Hare’s 1995 drama transpires in Kyra’s rundown first-floor London flat, which Nighy’s Tom Sargeant finds distasteful.
As a teen, Kyra came to London and went to work as a waitress for Tom. Kyra and Tom began a relationship that ended abruptly when Tom's wife, Alice, found out their secret. It’s been three years since Kyra and Tom have last spoken. With Alice now gone, can their romance be rekindled?
“Skylight” is a play that takes political positions -- witness the applause after Mulligan’s second-act monologue on the plight of the downtrodden -- but the characters come first.
Kyra believes people don’t pay enough attention to the poor, but Tom has her pegged as a woman sympathizing with the disenfranchised in lieu of forming intimate connections. She, in turn, sees him as lacking self-awareness, particularly as it pertains to the issue of their affair and its impact on his late spouse.
The sharp writing has Kyra both peeling away Tom’s many layers, and peeling onions -- the actress cooks spaghetti Bolognese during the first act, and the theater fills with the tangy smell of the sauce. Mulligan slices and dices as she deploys Hare’s complex dialogue, accusing her ex-lover of trying to mask his guilt with exorbitant expenditures (the title refers to a feature in the room Tom built for Alice in their new home as her illness progressed). Mulligan makes cooking while acting seem easy; it can't be.
Nighy, reprising a role he first played in 1997, is excellent at portraying his irritation with his surroundings, eyeing an unappealing morsel of cheese Kyra has asked him to grate as if it were a personal affront. He knows Kyra is trying to escape her class identity, and he calls her on it. Still, he has arrived here looking for reconciliation, and it’s clear that he’s far needier than she.
Nighy’s performance is full of that nervous energy that makes him so much fun to watch.
Bookending the drama are scenes between Kyra and Edward, Tom’s teenage son (Matthew Beard, of “The Imitation Game”). Edward interrupts Kyra earlier on the same night that his father will eventually show up, confessing that he’s angry she abandoned their family and that his father is miserable without her.
Beard, above, seems to have absorbed Nighy’s distinct tics and affectations via osmosis, and it’s quite easy to see them as father and son.
“Skylight” is directed by Stephen Daldry, the longtime Hare collaborator already represented this season with “The Audience.”
Bob Crowley’s set captures the anonymous feel of the freezing council flat, with a transparent wall that allows the audience to see beyond to the next set of soulless apartments. The design underscores the very different realities that Kyra and Tom, once inseparable, live in now -- “Skylight” leaves you with the feeling there’s no going back for either of them.
“Skylight,” through June 14 at the John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St. Tickets: $60-$149. Call 212-239-6200.