Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through Feb. 10
By ANNE SPISELMAN
The last scene of David Hare’s “Skylight” at Court Theatre is so touchingly funny, sweet and sad that it would be worth waiting for even if the tumultuous two hour-plus encounter between ex-lovers beforehand were less engrossing. But fortunately director William Brown and his actors have a firm handle on the complicated passions that drive the characters, even if the socio-political content for which Hare is famous doesn’t seem as fully integrated or convincing as it might have in 1995, when the play premiered at the National Theatre in Great Britain.
The backstory, which emerges little by little during the first act, is practically a cliché. Tom Sergeant (Philip Earl Johnson) is a successful fortysomething restaurateur who created an empire (a la Gordon Ramsay or Rich Melman) that’s now being run by bankers and bureaucrats. He’s been in bad shape for the year since his wife, Alice, died, and he’s come to see his former lover, Kyra Hollis (Laura Rook). As an eighteen year old newly arrived in London nearly a decade earlier, she had responded to a window waitress-wanted ad, became like family almost immediately, had a six-year-long affair with him, and disappeared three years ago, around the time his wife was diagnosed with cancer.
Tom is propelled by a combination of nostalgia, loneliness, ego and love, but he also wants the answer to a mystery: why Kyra left without a word, betraying everything he thought they had. An unrepentant capitalist not ashamed of making money, he wonders, too, about why she’s chosen to live in a crummy freezing-cold flat in northwest London while teaching underprivileged children in the rough East End on the opposite side of town.
As initial awkwardness segues into arguments, reminiscences, reconnection and sex, followed by more profound disagreements, it becomes clear that Kyra believes the betrayal was on Tom’s side. Always idealistic, she also justifies her do-gooder decisions at length, rejecting his accusations that she’s deliberately punishing herself out of guilt and criticizing him for his choices, as well as his troubled relationship with his son, Edward (Matt Farabee). Bridging the widening gulf in any meaningful way seems impossible.
All the while, memories of Alice —including the beautiful skylit room Tom built for her when she was dying — remain a palpable presence between Tom and Kyra, both pushing them together and pulling them apart. But what makes Brown’s production fascinating is the truthfulness of the way these former lovers interact, falling back on the patterns of their long history together and pushing the most sensitive emotional buttons. In truth, they’re not very likeable people, their idea of morality is questionable (especially where adultery is involved) and they have lots of issues and anger, but it’s impossible not to recognize the hold they have over each other.
The one weakness may be that the heat of the physical attraction is missing, and it’s hard to see in Johnson’s Tom enough of the charisma that would have captured Kyra in the first place, so we have to chalk it up to youthful infatuation. On the other hand, he’s brilliant at caustic sarcasm, dancing around the room with malicious glee as he mocks her the daily home-work-home journey she’s described as the best part of her day and unleashing enough chauvinistic remarks to make even a non-feminist cringe. The way he hijacks the spaghetti-making process — giving instructions on a proper sauce and sneering at the cheese — is particularly irritating to her and hilarious to us, yet there’s a comfortable familiarity in his setting the table, and we can sense his complex feelings in the tiniest details, such as how he grates that cheese.
Rook’s Kyra matches him in their verbal battles, though her shrillness and self-righteousness in the second act perhaps become more annoying than intended. Some of the vulnerability that’s caused her to close herself off — she doesn’t read the news or have a TV, touches that would be practically unthinkable in our technology-addicted day — is apparent, but something is a little off about the balance between them. And in the final moments, with Edward as kind of a stand-in for Tom in his younger days, she doesn’t blossom as much as one might hope.
Todd Rosenthal’s wall-less set replete with a full kitchen and exposed pipes cunningly lets us peek into all the recesses of Kyra’s flat, while Jesse Klug’s lighting subtly shifts with the hours and enhances silently falling snow. Rachel Anne Healy’s costumes probably are a propos for the period, but I had the feeling that Tom, whose chauffeur waits outside until sent away, should be better dressed.
All in all, “Skylight” may not speak to the contemporary socio-political situation as much as the folks at Court Theatre had hoped, but it does offer an insightful look at intimate relationships.