by David Hare
Theatre New Brunswick
I often think commercial theatre companies like Theatre New Brunswick do much of what they do just in order to get the chance to produce plays like David Hare's Skylight, which opened at the Playhouse Friday night. An elegantly structured, witty, and deeply textured tapestry, the script offers a company serious challenges and golden opportunities, and it never counts on its audience to stop thinking. It's not a perfect play, but it represents a brilliant and experienced playwright working at the top of his form. We should all be grateful to Walter Learning for giving us a chance to see it.
The story's pretty simple, in outline: the upward striving restauranteur and the young waitress have a relationship for six years, fooling his wife; the wife finds out, and the waitress -- now a live-in housekeeper and companion to the couple and their children -- instantly walks out of the family and the relationship. Two years later, the wife dies of cancer, and a year after that the husband goes to find the waitress, to ask her forgiveness, to begin the relationship, perhaps to propose again the marriage he'd proposed when their relationship was discovered. The action of the play takes place the night he shows up at her apartment.
What David Hare does with this situation -- which might fit most of the soap opera cliches you can think of -- is to make it an elegantly shaped pas de deux by inserting into it authentic, believable people, with thoughtful, serious lives and real motives. He weaves the incidents and the language into a wonderfully coherent whole, full of patterns, and echoes, and connections, and allows us opportunities to infer a rich, unstated complexity in the simplest gestures and remarks.
Much of the relationship between the two main characters is conducted through conversations about ideas -- about business and capital and "getting on," about teaching and social work, and about debt, obligation, and guilt. And love. The challenge for a company is to make this conversation real, and emotionally loaded, and even suspenseful. Under Walter Learning's direction, this production succeeds brilliantly.
We're prepared for this dance of ideas by an opening scene in which the son of the family, Edward (Simon Henderson), visits the waitress -- now a dedicated teacher in a slum school -- to tell her that, since his mother's death, his father has been in "a bad way," and to ask her help. If he's not quite a convincing 18-year-old (perhaps wealthy British 18-year-olds seem older), Henderson still firmly establishes the pace and structure of the play and their tentative conversation brings our attention to the proper level of alertness. "Very nice place," he says. "You are growing up," she responds. And he is. About his mother, he says despondently, "Once they're dead I find they keep changing."
But what this opening scene really does is introduce Kyra (Jennifer Lyon), one of the most attractive female roles I've seen in contemporary theatre. Lyon's performance is a triumph. She makes Kyra spectacularly sympathetic, listening to Edward with an active, luminous, expressive attention that lets us see every nuance of her response, making us dream of having someone listen to us that way. Tough-minded and intelligent, she still awards every utterance complete, engaged response. In the second scene, after Edward has left, and his father, Tom, arrives (coincidentally) virtually on his heels, she tells us -- with body language, with secret, amused smiles and subtle sideways glances and a sudden, ironic wrinkling of her nose -- exactly how she feels about his long rant about bankers and finance, while at the same time continuing to prepare her dinner, attending to the status of the pasta and fending off Tom's coaching about when to put the peppers in the sauce and what kind of cheese she ought to be using.
Playing opposite her, Brian McKay's Tom is -- especially in the first act -- a solid, sympathetic, and engaging partner in this verbal dance. McKay earns our sympathy for his obdurate Thatcherite social views with what seems his courageous attempt to hold his life together, his sympathetic little-boy hesitation and self-deprecating slouch when she scores with a zinger ("He called me a zombie," he complains about his son. "No!" she says), even his endearing Scots burr. His long opening rant -- clearly, it seems, he's there in part because he's hooked on having her listen to him -- never quite alienates us because it's so realistic, and often witty.
The tension between them is just about perfectly balanced. When she discovers, to her dismay, that he's just leaving his driver to sit out in the car while he visits, he clearly does not comprehend what would be wrong with that. "He's a driver," he says, with sensible practicality. "Frank isn't people, Frank is a man doing a job." The ensemble playing -- the use of the space, the timing of the dialogue between the two -- is spot on. The actors' focus on the script's reality, on making David Hare's words their characters' own, is superlative, belying the fact that TNB's budget means they've only had two and a half weeks to rehearse.
One of the most important things about this production, I think, is the tempo that Learning has selected for it. When the curtain goes up, both the very gradual brightening of the lights and the wonderfully deliberate sounds of Glenn Gould's late recording of the aria from the Goldberg Variations tell us we have all the time in the world. Even though the scenes themselves are the furthest thing from slow, we're going to be able to contemplate them.
Sheila Toye's set, too, is -- as we have come to expect -- a perfect space for the play, rich in absolutely accurate props, with just the right colors and lived-in mess to suggest Kyra's down-at-heels North London flat -- but, at the same time, just presentable enough to make Tom's complaints about "Siberia" and "Beirut" obviously excessive. "This place isn't especially horrible," she says. "It's how people live." It is a space, too, which Jennifer Lyon's Kyra can obviously and comfortably inhabit, cooking pasta and sauce and knowing unconsciously where every utensil and every chair is -- and at the same time one in which Edward and Tom could both look uncomfortable, out of place.
One of the challenges the script poses that isn't quite mastered in this production is that in the second act the playwright's sympathies seem to tilt conclusively toward Kyra. Tom continues to voice his free-enterprise, make-it-on-your own sympathies, and Kyra her idealistic commitment to helping the students at her devastated school "because if I don't no one else will," and it becomes clear that David Hare, like many a playwright before him, has fallen in love with his heroine. "You're right," she admits, "I've become my anger." But we see just why she'd be angry at a world in which some people leave their drivers in the Mercedes and others don't have enough to eat.
We're invited to sympathize with Tom -- in losing Kyra, he's losing pretty much everything that matters to him. But we're also invited to see him as consistently on the "wrong side" -- about politics and social policy, and also about human relationships. "I'm disqualified from having human feelings," he whines when she accuses him of looking for pity, "because I've made some money." Because our sympathies turn so strongly toward Kyra, we don't feel as much tension in the last half of the play as we might. We see just why Edward might want to go out and bring Kyra a wonderful breakfast, as he does in the scene which ends the play, and we spare hardly a thought for Tom, going off in the snow in a taxi. Perhaps an actor of the genius of a Michael Gambon, who created the role in London, might have evened that balance. I don't mean to suggest that Brian McKay was less than fine, but finally I felt more sorry for him, and less engaged with him, than I think David Hare wanted. But that's more Hare's fault, I think, than a problem with TNB's production, which does as well as I can imagine anyone doing with a great, but flawed, script.
Skylight is a triumphant conclusion to Walter Learning's current tenure as Executive Producer at TNB. He may not have succeeded in bringing his dream, of a professional company touring all of New Brunswick, back to the pink of financial health -- but if this is the kind of thing he wants to spend more time doing, I sure hope his career-spanning involvement with Theatre New Brunswick isn't at an end.