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Theater Review

'Skylight': Brilliant Illumination

September 19, 1997|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

British playwright David Hare has always been interested in the interplay between social conscience and personal responsibility. Not since his 1978 play "Plenty" has he crystallized these concerns into a play as compelling and warm-blooded as "Skylight," which opened Thursday night at the Mark Taper Forum.

Under the superb direction of Robert Egan, "Skylight" is a play in which two strong-willed former lovers face off and attempt to sort out the world and each other according to entirely different world views. They still love each other, so their disagreements have a life-and-death urgency. And the more you sink into their debate, the more structure you find beneath it, a whole world of thought in which to travel.

"Skylight" posits the schoolteacher Kyra (Laila Robins) against Tom (Brian Cox), a successful and swaggering restaurateur and hotelier who has come uninvited to Kyra's cold-water flat in an unfashionable part of London. He tries to persuade her to return to him. By extraordinary coincidence--or need--his son Edward (Michael Hall) had also gone on the same mission earlier that day.

Kyra left Tom about three years before, and she is now teaching poor kids in a tough neighborhood. She finds the rewards great, but they fly under Tom's net; he doesn't see their practical value. For nine years, Kyra lived well with the prosperous Tom and his wife, Alice, as their employee and friend, and for six of those, she was secretly Tom's mistress as well. She left abruptly when Alice discovered the affair. Now, Alice has died after a painful three-year bout with cancer, and the men in the family feel they need Kyra, desperately. Both also feel abandoned by her.

David Jenkins provides the eloquent set, which embodies the play's main themes. It can be seen, in context with the adjoining tenements, as a perfectly adequate and comfortable--if freezing--apartment. But it can also be seen as Tom views it: a cave to hide out in.

Kyra's tiny stove, sitting on top of a night table, is rudimentary, but it cooks a perfectly good spaghetti dinner (which she makes in the course of the play). But why is she choosing to live a life of minimal comfort? Is it purely personal integrity, a desire to help kids who have no one else to help them, as she states?

Or is she paying some kind of penance for the crime she and Tom committed against Alice, who was her friend? And does it even matter why? Hare has written each character so well that these questions, and many others, can be turned over and over and never fully answered.

Cox and Robins both do stunning work. They persuasively embody physical and spiritual opposites, always showing the searing connection between them that makes everything matter so much.

Willowy, with delicate, pale skin, Robins is appealing as a courageous, smart woman whose self-sacrifice is also somehow suspect. Her belief that secret love is the purest love bespeaks a pathology, which Tom, with his aggressive, entrepreneurial wiles, pounces upon. When he does that, Robins looks out at the audience, and we watch her destroyed equilibrium painfully try to reestablish itself.

Ruddy, stout and combustible, Cox is a man who thoroughly enjoys his own lively, anti-sentimental intelligence. He makes Tom enormously entertaining--a gesture as simple as the way he picks up and grates a piece of cheese he finds detestable is wonderful. His blustering is theatrical; you want to applaud when he goes on a riff over why Kyra has a heater that doesn't work. Cox draws a line, though, between the entertainer's bluster and the man's raw emotions. When Tom describes how his dying wife did not forgive him, he still operates at top volume. But he loses all of the performer's burnish. It is a fine distinction, beautifully drawn.

Each character makes such good, definitive, shapely arguments that you feel theirs is the last word on the subject, until the rebuttal begins. The smallest details of their conversation--the way she closes her sweater when he begins to share his earliest memories of her--are perfectly calibrated and yet utterly natural, directed with a keen intelligence.

Egan has done a fine job of making these people who talk so much into more than mere mouthpieces, a problem that has beleaguered Hare's plays. Egan's production is more compelling and more satisfying than the highly praised original starring the great Michael Gambon, which opened in London in 1995 and moved to Broadway the next year. When Gambon was onstage, you saw only Gambon. Here, you see everything, much more even than is visible. You see how two people can both be right and wrong at the same time.

* "Skylight," Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Oct. 26. $29 to $37. (213) 628-2772. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

Laila Robins: Kyra Hollis

Michael Hall: Edward Sergeant

Brian Cox: Tom Sergeant

A Mark Taper Forum production. By David Hare. Directed by Robert Egan. Sets David Jenkins. Costumes Marianna Elliott. Lights Michael Gilliam. Sound Jon Gottlieb. Original music Karl Fredrik Lundeberg. Production stage manager Mary Michele Miner.

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