David Hare’s Skylight superficially explores the power dynamic between a wealthy older businessman and a vulnerable young teacher and how their relationship mirrors the shifting sociopolitical perspective in post-Thatcher 1990s London. Yet I wouldn’t be surprised if you left McCarter Theatre Center’s uneven production thinking it was a play about making dinner.
Food has always been a major element of this work, which premiered in 1995 and enjoyed an acclaimed Broadway revival four years ago.
Tom and Kyra
Tom Sergeant (Greg Wood), the silver-fox lothario at the play's center, made his mint in the UK fine-dining boom of the late 1980s. He met the idealist, impressionable Kyra Hollis (Mahira Kakkar) when she got a job managing one of his restaurants; a six-year affair commenced. The action begins some time after the relationship ended, with Kyra teaching at-risk youth in a kind of self-imposed martyrdom and Tom hoping to reignite the flame of their former passion.
The seduction unfolds as Kyra cooks a plate of pasta arrabbiata in the tiny kitchen of her dreary flat, looking here like something out of Dickens in Beowulf Boritt’s depressingly realistic set. She expertly chops her mise-en-place while explaining the events that caused her to flee Tom’s life, and his home, years earlier.
Tom grates Parmesan cheese and recounts the final illness of his now-deceased wife, who discovered the nature of Tom and Kyra's relationship before her death. Before long, the delicious aroma of sizzling garlic, onion, and pepperoncini fills the intimate Berlind Theatre, leaving mouths watering.
At intermission, the couples seated next to and behind me barely considered the complicated trajectory of Tom and Kyra’s romance. They seemed to have completely forgotten Kyra’s brief encounter with Edward (Zane Pais), Tom’s ingratiating teenage son, who visits her out of the blue in the play’s first scene. None of that mattered. They wanted the recipe.
I don’t blame them. Wood and Kakkar bring a lusty sense of purpose to their cooking duties that doesn’t translate to the carnal side of their courtship. (I could have screamed, though, when Kakker broke the long spaghetti in half—do people really do that?) Under Emily Mann’s direction, they exude little palpable chemistry, and they don’t suggest the long, unspoken history of two people who shared a powerful, all-consuming secret. The major source of heat on stage was those chili peppers.
Sophistry and sacrifice
The lack of believable attraction between the pair highlights the deficiencies in Hare’s drama. Essentially a television romance with a political agenda, it strikes false notes about both liberal and conservative ideologies, as the characters devolve into little more than mouthpieces for simple-minded sophistry.
Tom’s unrepentant egotism and flashy Savile Row duds (costumes by Montana Levi Blanco) brand him a predictable bogeyman. His crass behavior stacks the deck in favor of Kyra’s wholehearted embrace of poverty and sacrifice. (The play makes it clear that Kyra comes from a moneyed background, while Tom’s success is self-made.) But even though Tom’s politics would probably repel me if I met him on the street, there’s something utterly repugnant about a wealthy, well-connected writer like Hare extoling the virtues of self-abnegation to an audience comprised of far more Toms than Kyras.
Hare’s decision to fuse partisan haranguing with erotic assignation reeks of playwriting artifice. Worse, the discourse sounds thin and manufactured, like a student’s attempt at erudition. Take away the British accents and you’d be left with a primetime soap opera, the kind of work that telegraphs smug sophistication through sex and sadness. Pornchanok Kanchanabanca’s drippy interstitial music further drives home the feeling of a lachrymose Lifetime movie.
Other distasteful elements abound, like Hare’s insistence that Edward and his privileged prep-school friends spend their gap years working menial jobs. (I guess, like Kyra, they long to learn how the other half lives.) Edward sells hot dogs outside a football field—yes, more food. His best mate works as a kitchen boy at the Ritz. All that’s missing is a buddy who jellies eels.
The act of eating takes center stage again in the play’s final scene, and many in the audience will leave the theater hungry. If they’re anything like me, they’ll also depart intellectually and emotionally starved.
What, When, Where
Skylight. By David Hare, directed by Emily Mann. Through June 2, 2019, at McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, New Jersey. (609) 258-2787 or mccarter.org.
McCarter Theatre Center is an ADA-compliant venue. Wheelchair and companion seating can be purchased online or by calling (609) 258-2787. There will be an open-captioned performance of Skylight on Saturday, May 25, at 2pm, and an audio-described and ASL-interpreted performance on Saturday, June 1, at 2pm.