October 18, 2018

A Window to the Soul

Laila Robins and Brian Cox in a scene from “Skylight”by David Hare


A romantic might regard a skylight as a window facing the sun –evidence of the universal but private human impulse to reach up, todream. But seen through a different lens, a skylight is a dangerouskind of artifice — a deliberately selective framing device thatoffers an idealized view of reality by excluding the messy chaos andpain that exists closer to the ground.

English playwright David Hare explores the uneasy coexistence ofwarring human impulses in “Skylight,” which is now onstage in itsWest Coast première at the Mark Taper Forum under directorRobert Egan.

Despite some moments in Act I that stall under the weight of theexposition, Hare weaves together the personal and the political herewith a good deal of wisdom and skill. To a certain degree, his workhas always been concerned with the larger-scale conflicts betweenleft and right, rich and poor, men and women. While “Skylight” is anambitious play charged with big ideas, it generally avoids thedreaded didacticism associated with “political theater.” Instead, setentirely in a modest flat in drab Northwest London, “Skylight” deftlyillustrates how the complex tensions that tug at contemporary Westernsociety play themselves out on an utterly human scale.

At the outset, we meet Kyra Hollis (played by the willowy andself-assured Laila Robins), who lives in the apartment where thedrama unfolds. A schoolteacher to underprivileged teens in “EastHam,” Kyra is intense, bookish, resolutely liberal and almost asceticin her disdain for material comforts. Her chilly flat lacks centralheating, so she huddles contentedly on the couch near a space heaterthat doesn’t work. (The apartment’s frigidity proves to be acontinuous source of humor throughout the play.)

It’s a life of small conversations on the cross-town bus and quietevenings at home, grading papers. Kyra may have spent her childhoodnear the cold English sea as the daughter of an affluent but remotesolicitor/father, but she now appears at home in the hardscrabbleenvirons of bohemian working-class London.

Her new life is thrown off balance, however, by a conversationwith the adolescent Edward Sergeant (an exuberant and entertainingturn by Michael Hall), a boy she watched grow up during the years sheworked for his parents. As chance would have it, she’s visited laterthe same day by his father, Tom Sergeant — a gruff and roguishlycharming business tycoon, played with relish by the magnetic BrianCox.

It turns out that years ago, Kyra was a young and talentedemployee of a growing restaurant and hotel empire run by Tom and hiswife, Alice. While Kyra was quickly welcomed into their family, herrelationship with the Sergeants was somewhat complicated. She sharedan intimate friendship with Alice, whom she admired and respected,and, for six years, she carried on a torrid and secret romance withTom. When Alice discovered the love affair, Kyra fled and neverlooked back.

Now, three years later, Alice has recently died of cancer, andTom, who has turned 50, stands with false bravado in the middle ofKyra’s living room — looking both seductively threatening andfaintly ridiculous in his expensive topcoat.

This chain of events, sketched only briefly here, is graduallyrevealed during the long, passionate night of talk that follows Tom’ssudden appearance at Kyra’s door. During the first few minutes ofthis reunion between former lovers, the air is heavy with old wounds,unanswered questions, sexual tension and the comic awkwardness thataccompanies it. The emotionally layered atmosphere (as well as DavidJenkin’s cleverly cluttered and inviting set) draw us in quickly.What keeps us there, interested in spending the night with thesemismatched lovers, are the full-bodied performances by Robins and Cox(whose looks and bearish energy are strongly reminiscent of AlbertFinney) as well as Hare’s wit and insight about modern life.

While Kyra makes dinner, trying to keep a wary distance from Tom’sforce field, he strides about her apartment, alternating well-placedswipes at her composure with funny observations on a variety ofsubjects, such as his dealings with the smug new class of youngbusiness consultants he has to contend with now that his company hasgone public. Of one he says, “He’s the kind of person who has beentold he’s good with people. He smiles a lot…. Naturally, he’s quiteinsufferable.”

Since Alice’s death, Tom is equally impatient with the false,touchy-feely intimacies extended to him by therapized professionals.With comic precision, he recounts to Kyra the invitation of a womanfrom a local “support group” who showed up at his door one day to”help him grieve.”

As the night grows late, their conversation, as well as theirattraction, grows more frank and piercingly close to the bone. BothKyra’s and Tom’s public faces are slowly stripped away. Her sense ofself-containment and righteous liberalism are rattled by Tom, whoaccuses her of living a niggardly emotional and material life builton denial and fuzzy leftist sentiment. Her thin, almost abstracthuman relationships and chilly apartment, he argues, are closer tothe icy loneliness of her childhood than she thinks.

Kyra dismisses Tom’s own initial show of gruff cheer as numb maleposturing, fueled by an inability to face pain. His blustergrudgingly gives way, revealing the anger and confusion that liebehind the surface.

“Skylight” may paint the picture of a highly specific love story– messy with psychological scars and conflicting desires — but it’sincorporated onto the larger canvas of historical and politicalcrosscurrents. (“It wasn’t until I left those capriccio andricotta-stuffed restaurants of yours,” Kyra tells Tom at one point,”…that I remembered how other people lived.”) Personal ambitionsversus social responsibility. Love versus self knowledge.

With “Skylight,” Hare illuminates how our public selves are shapedand propelled by our private lives. On close inspection, the detailsthat make up the “big picture” are a series of potently individualones.

“Skylight” is at the Mark Taper Forum through Oct. 26. 135 N.Grand Ave., Los Angeles. For tickets ($29 to $37), performanceschedule or other information, call (213) 628-2772. n