Sunday, May 03, 2015


photo: Sara Krulwich
Every theater season has a "snob hit," according to William Goldman's classic 1969 insider's guide to Broadway, The Season. It's a play--usually British--that cultured New Yorkers flock to en masse, out of a sense of obligation. They don't want to see it, per se, but feel they have to, in order to preserve their cred as serious art lovers. This season's snob hit is almost certainly the revival of David Hare's 1995 play Skylight, currently at the John Golden Theatre after a successful, sold out, screened in movie theaters worldwide run in London. Directed by the supposed wunderkind Stephen Daldry and starring heavy hitters Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan, it's attracting droves of the well-heeled denizens of the Upper West Side and Park Slope, who dutifully applaud, laugh when appropriate, nod appreciatively, and feel grateful that they managed to wrangle up a ticket.

Skylight is a talky, boring play meant to comment on the perilous class divide in post-Thatcherite England. However, it really boils down to nothing more than a charismatic older man talking his way into a fragile young woman's knickers. Tale as old as time, with or without the pretense of liberal politics to make it seem more palatable. Tom Sergeant (Nighy), a successful restaurateur, shagged his former employee, Kyra Hollis (Mulligan), for six years while she lived with him and his now-deceased wife as a de facto family member. When Mrs. Sergeant discovered the affair, Kyra fled to North London, to begin a self-prescribed penance as a teacher in a slum school. When Tom turns up round her flat after three years of silence, it's not long before they are back in the roles they once inhabited, and back in bed.

And did I mention they talk? And talk. And talk. And talkkkkkkkk. About everything. Which amounts to nothing.

I've liked Mulligan in other plays. Specifically, she's likely the best Nina (in Chekhov's The Seagull) I'll ever see. Here, though, she's punching above her weight. Kyra is a mammoth role--she never leaves the stage once the play begins--and Mulligan gives the impression that she's just trying to make it through to the end of the performance, to spout Hare's reams and reams of dialogue without blowing it. No shading to her character, no conviction to her big speeches (although they receive compulsory applause anyway). A surprisingly workmanlike performance, not exciting in any way.

Nighy, on the other hand, is animated to a fault. He spins around the stage like the Tasmanian devil, a whirling dervish of energy and dexterity. He's an actor who acts, not an actor who inhabits a part. As Miss Jean Brodie once said: "For those who like that sort of thing, it is the sort of thing they like." I found it exhausting and rather empty.

A third character, Edward Sergeant (Matthew Beard), bookends the play. He's Tom's son, unaware of his father's relationship with Kyra, and he's not meant to do more than represent adolescent England in the 1990's. I suppose Beard's performance is fine, considering he's playing an idea, not a role, but the Tony nomination he received is baffling.

Also baffling is Daldry's production. For one thing, Nighy spends at least half the play with his back to the audience. If this is a directorial choice, it's an unspeakably stupid one; it's an incredible amount of a performance for the audience to miss. Mulligan and Nighy have very little natural chemistry, and Daldry does little to assuage this; we're supposed to take, on faith, that they're so magnetically drawn to each other that they jump from icy anger to passionate coitus in a split second. And too much of the play is underscored by unnecessary, atonal incidental music (by Paul Englishby).

Skylight received seven Tony nominations and will most likely take home the award for Best Revival. The production (which runs through June 21) is selling briskly and likely to recoup. The snob hit is alive and well on Broadway. And I guess even I'm not immune--I did buy a ticket, after all. But I wish I had those two hours back.

[Paid full price for second-to-last row of the mezzanine, a decision I regret]


Wendy Caster said...

I disagree with much of William Goldman's book The Season and I find this idea of a "snob hit" to be offensive (as are many other ideas in that book). No one can read the minds of the people going to see a show, and I doubt there are many people who spend $80 and up (and up!) to "preserve their cred as serious art lovers."

Many in the audience of Skylight are, I suspect, fans of Cary Mulligan and/or Bill Nighy. Some saw the show in its last incarnation and want to compare casts. Some may even be fans of David Hare.

And deciding that the audience is from the UWS and Park Slope is weird to me, and making it sound like that would be a bad thing is weirder.

I think my main issue is the whole idea of judging the motives of people who have different opinions, particularly when there is no way to actually know what those motives are.

Cameron Kelsall said...

I disagree with much of Goldman's book, but I've always found some level of truth in his formulation of the snob hit. In this particular case, I actually spoke to quite a few people in my seating area at intermission, and heard things like, "this is what people are raving over?" and "given the reviews, I thought it would be better." The entire audience, however, appeared to be having a positive reaction, and I'm aware that it's impossible for me to know whether or not those reactions were sincere without talking to each audience member individually.

You and I see more theater than most people, I'd venture to say, and I'd also venture to say that for us, theater is essential to our happiness. However, I do believe that there are more than few people who spend high sums of money for certain tickets not because they have a strong desire to see it, but because they want to say that they saw it. ("I saw Hamilton at the Public, even if it did cost me $500" or "I saw Larry David live--who cares about the actual play he's in?"). Not to generalize, but these are also often the people for whom money is no option, and cred is another form of currency among many of those sets ("I saw Hamilton at the Public--I had better seats than Cher!").