There is something wonderfully auspicious about the fact that the first new play of the season should be David Hare's "Skylight," an absorbing, civilized piece of writing that marks the long-overdue New York debut of the English actor Michael Gambon, best known to us from the PBS series "The Singing Detective."
In "Skylight," Gambon plays Tom Sergeant, a restaurant tycoon who, for the first time in three years, visits Kyra, the mistress who left him when his dying wife discovered they were having an affair. Tom's midnight visit is unexpected. After an uneasy reconciliation, they go to bed. Afterward, they begin settling scores and trading insults. Tom, a self-made man, is proud of his power and his connections. "I have this really great bloke," he starts to say, and she hurls back at him, "Your whole life is great blokes!"
Kyra, the daughter of a prosperous lawyer "being pushed by nannies beside stormy English seas," he sneers has left Tom's prosperous business ("those carpaccio and ricotta-stuffed restaurants of yours") to teach in one London slum and live in another. He accuses her of suffering from the middle-class tendency to sentimentalize and idealize the poor. She has transformed her life, he charges, into "an act of denial."
Too often in these exchanges, we sense the playwright on a soapbox. Tom and Kyra cease to be characters. They become merely representatives of their respective classes. Each scores some points, but the human drama fades as the ideological war heats up. Ultimately, it is not possible for the two to begin their life together again, despite the fact Tom's wife has died. Unable to accept this inescapable conclusion, Hare has given the play a jolly but needless coda, a fantasy ending at odds with its otherwise realistic tone. If it were not for Gambon and Lia Williams, who plays Kyra, the play could easily descend into a shouting match. Both bring a humanity to their parts not always evident in the text. Gambon has the sort of majestic head that would once have been associated with a statesman or, in better times, an actor. His elegantly arched eyebrows accentuate the aloofness of eyes that seem in constant judgment of a world that does not measure up. But by the end of the evening, he has lost control. The eyes, hitherto narrow slits as guarded as if by a knight's visor, are open and fevered, revealing his "bog-ordinary" roots. I first saw Gambon 20 years ago in London, where his rich voice and the powerful intelligence he projects brought an edge and bite to Simon Gray's "Otherwise Engaged," which never had that wiry energy here. It has taken too long, but let's hope we see this towering actor often. In Williams, he has a perfect foil. She has an appealing vulnerability and makes Kyra's angry indictments of Tom strong without losing our sympathy for her. Christian Camargo is solid as Tom's confused son. John Gunter's set perfectly captures the willed dreariness in Kyra's flight from middle-class comfort, but his costumes bring a note of grace into the harsh confrontation. Whatever the play's shortcomings, it has been superbly mounted. Gambon and Williams make it an extremely pleasurable evening of theater.
Few plays are about people - most are about events, landscapes with marionettes, or else they are debates, ideas made into all too solid flesh.
David Hare's luminously beautiful and wildly truthful 'Skylight,' which opened at the Royale Theater last night, has ideas. It even has a few events. But most of all, it has people. It is, deeply and truly, about people.
It is also about a love affair - intense, comradely, adulterous and ended. Or is it? Will it ever be?
Kyra (Lia Williams) is a school teacher who teaches in one poor district of London and lives in another poor district, commuting daily between her areas of underprivilege.
On the evening we meet her in her sprawling but cold and charmless flat in northwest London, she has a surprise visitor, an 18-year-old boy, Edward (Christian Camargo), seemingly bringing unexpected gifts of beer and rap records.
But that is not his purpose. He hasn't seen Kyra for three years, not since she left his family, or more specifically since she left his father. His mother has recently died, and his father is distraught. Edward wants Kyra at least to see his dad, and perhaps reconcile.
Later that same evening - Hare is stretching the long arm of dramatic license too far, but we soon forget and forgive - the father, Tom, turns up himself. A rich restauranteur and hotelier, he arrives, apparently unaware of his son's mission, bearing whisky, memories and hope.
Is she glad to see him? Probably. They talk. They rehash (surely as much for the audience's benefit as their own; but not matter, Hare rehashes very smoothly) the details of their personal past, from their meeting to their breakup.
We gather that Kyra left Tom - she worked for him as his chief aide, as well as being a close friend of his family - as soon as his wife learned of their affair. She made no explanation, just walked out without a word.
Leaving Tom to pick up the pieces, a situation made more difficult when, only a year later, he learns that his wife is dying of cancer. Meanwhile Kyra has found a new vocation, and new work for her considerable intelligence, in teaching.
Of course, it should be simple. It is obvious to both of them that they still love one another - how long can it take for this thirtysomething free-spirited woman and this buccaneering fiftyish businessman to get together again? Surely the things that kept them apart have gone.
Yet have they? At first glance, of course, they have, but Hare is not a playwright who wants us to make our minds up on first glances. Which is why he introduces us to these wonderfully complex people - even when they are being politically simplistic they manage to be emotionally complex - and their tortuously realistic situation.
It is a fascinating play, but it needs consummate skill in performance to bring it off. It is one thing to write close to the bone of reality, but it is still left to the actors and the director to convince you and break down the theater's fourth wall to let you live with that reality.
This staging by Richard Eyre, imported from Eyre's Royal National Theater in London, is as near to perfection as Hare could have hoped for.
Eyre choreographs glances, orchestrates inflections and lightly underlines thought. And he has the actors to do it. The one newcomer to the cast, Camargo, is absolutely fine, while Gambon and Williams, are, even more than when I first saw them last year in London, totally breathtaking.
Hare and Eyre together ask them to reveal private and public faces, personal and political attitudes, and the actors both assume them apparently by right of reality, of genes and experience.
Gambon, arrogant, charming, funny and bloody, weaves through the play like a shabby, wounded tiger on his way to his first heart attack. Less daring - Gambon takes high-wire histrionic chances as easily as downing whisky - but hardly less rich is Williams' taut, high-strung woman, fighting for her life. And what does happen? Who knows? What is important is that you will find yourself having an opinion about it - just as you might have an opinion if they were, say, friends of yours. And it is surely the ultimate triumph of Gambon, Williams, Hare and Eyre that by the time the evening is over, they actually are.
It's only an old sock, after all: a stiff, shabby sock in which a key is put before it's thrown out the window to callers at a run-down apartment building in northwest London. But in the remarkable hands of Michael Gambon and Lia Williams -- the stars of David Hare's absolutely splendid ''Skylight,'' which opened last night at the Royale Theater -- that sock acquires, with a few casual-seeming gestures, as many shades of meaning as Desdemona's handkerchief.
As the edgy, eternally restless businessman Tom Sergeant, Mr. Gambon arrives at the flat of Kyra Hollis (Ms. Williams), his former mistress, with sock in hand and a whole wardrobe of fear and longing he doesn't quite know what to do with.
So he twirls the sock, like an old-time music hall performer, in a flashy, awkward invitation to reopen a dialogue that shut down into silence three years earlier. It is obvious that the first and last thing these people want to do is touch each other. Instead, Tom playfully brushes the sock against Kyra's neck. She grabs at it; he tugs at one end; she reluctantly tugs back. Then they give up the game.
The pause that follows resounds with their unspoken question: where on earth do we go from here?
Neither Mr. Hare, the author of such incendiary plays as ''Plenty'' and ''A Map of the World,'' nor Mr. Gambon, the great English actor, is averse to grand gestures. And ''Skylight,'' a Royal National Theater production that arrives from London with its two original stars, definitely has its share of those: passionate statements of belief, full-voiced cries of pain and the angry, desperate flinging of books and cutlery.
But under the exquisite, carefully calibrated staging by Richard Eyre, the National Theater's departing director, it's the fumbling, aborted gestures that speak loudest and that tear at the heart long after the play is over.
''Skylight'' is the story of an unbridgeable gulf between two people -- an idealistic, inner-city schoolteacher and the upscale restaurateur for whom she once worked -- who, on one level, were made to be together. It is certainly Mr. Hare's most heartfelt statement on an age that seems to thwart all hope of sustained connections, whether between lovers, social classes or Thatcherites and Socialists.
The exasperation this inspires has infused all of Mr. Hare's works. But usually he has begun with a panoramic view of a society or an institution (the church, in last season's ''Racing Demon''), then zoomed in on the individuals within it, often to overly schematic effect.
Here, his starting point is with individuals. And while their story opens windows on the paralyzed, sickly England in which the play is set, Mr. Hare never betrays the complexity of his characters or the currents that both bind and isolate them. The result is more fluidly organic than, and every bit as articulate as, any of his previous works.
It is also, by far, his most emotionally accessible play. Throughout ''Skylight,'' Tom and Kyra are locked in a wrenching dance of desire and frustration, reaching out, shuffling forward and then quickly drawing back, like children fascinated by a fire.
These rhythms are most literally realized in Mr. Gambon's sly, sad footwork. Watch how he tentatively props, and then withdraws, a well-polished shoe on the rung of a chair in which Ms. Williams sits, or his almost balletic scuttle across the stage, as Tom seeks to impress the woman he lost.
But Ms. Williams's more contained Kyra, who is 20 years younger than Tom, finds her own, equally affecting cadences of advance and retreat, of opening into a luminous vulnerability and then slamming the door on it.
This is a couple for whom even the most commonplace subjects are riddled with danger; words catch in their throats like razor blades. When Kyra remarks simply that she likes old movies, adding, ''They have something we don't,'' it is clearly the wrong thing to say. The dialogue onstage has reached another stalemate, and its participants have to start all over again.
The back story of Tom and Kyra is certainly thorny enough to make even casual talk a dangerous proposition. For years, Kyra was Tom's invaluable business associate, a babysitter of his children, a close friend of Tom's wife, Alice, and also Tom's mistress. When Alice discovered the affair, Kyra bolted from the Sergeants' lives.
When she sees Tom again, Alice has been dead of cancer for a year. Kyra's reunion with her former lover is prefaced by a visit from Tom's 18-year-old son (played with winning adolescent woundedness by Christian Camargo), who tells her something of the hell into which his father has since descended. As Tom will later say of his wife's illness and its consequences, in a tone of blistering bewilderment: ''You suffer. That's what you do. There are no short-cuts.''
Death and infidelity, and the guilt they engender, would seem to be enough to take on for one play. But Mr. Hare, being Mr. Hare, offers quite a bit more to consider. Tom and Kyra are, in a sense, variations on political types he has presented before: the dynamic capitalist who defines himself by accumulation (like the soul-devouring press lord in ''Pravda,'' written with Howard Brenton) and the idealist who flees the corruption of the commercial world (as in the heroine of ''The Secret Rapture'').
Not surprisingly, the dialogue in ''Skylight'' can assume Shavian dimensions, embracing everything from practical politics to love as a private and public phenomenon. But though there are belief-defining monologues here of considerable length, they never feel like a playwright's diatribes. Nor does Mr. Hare ever tip the ideological balance: Kyra and Tom are equally adept (and accurate) in pointing out the other's delusions.
Mr. Gambon, best known to American audiences for his portrayal of Dennis Potter's macabre ''Singing Detective'' on television, gives a performance of spectacularly showy energy that reminds us of the exaggerated, blissfully theatrical aspect of other Hare characters (the flamboyantly disaffected heroine of ''Plenty,'' the Rupert Murdoch-like figure in ''Pravda''). Yet he also unerringly locates the quiet, lonely terror behind the flashiness.
Ms. Williams responds to Mr. Gambon with a flame that is none the less impressive for its lower, steadier light. The actors are matched in force of presence and actorly intuition. And you never question for a second why two such dissimilar characters wound up together.
There are very few flaws to pick at. True, Mr. Gambon occasionally seems to be playing more to his theater audience than to Ms. Williams, particularly in the second act. There are a few glib lines that bizarrely bring to mind Terrence Rattigan. And John Gunter's otherwise excellent set doesn't really need the symbolic, wasteland-like cityscape to remind us of the blighted England outside.
Otherwise, theatergoing today doesn't get much better than this. Mr. Hare has written a play that is both devastatingly clear-sighted and compassionate. Mr. Eyre and his company always keep the work's thematic ambitions within the compelling, naturalistic framework of a love affair gone wrong. And the rendering of emotional and physical details is so acute that you may be, at moments, embarrassed by the rawness of the intimacy onstage.
''Skylight'' is hardly optimistic. Insight isn't any more redemptive here than it has ever been in this playwright's works. Nor would it seem that even with the most generous intentions can a person connect fully with anyone else. (Witness the skylight of the title, the centerpiece of the room Tom built for his dying wife, or the lovely concluding scene between Ms. Williams and Mr. Camargo.)
Still, you're unlikely to leave the theater considering suicide or a long session with a Scotch bottle. For all its sense of futility, ''Skylight'' glows with a bewildered but invigorating respect for life as it is. To see that feeling rendered with such emotional eloquence by a team of first-rate artists is in itself a reason to hope.
Among its many accomplishments, David Hare's "Skylight" cleanly brushes aside two of the more onerous notions about Broadway today, the first being that serious drama is best left to the nonprofit houses, the second that the British have little to offer American audiences beyond demented singing divas and falling chandeliers. A play of uncommon richness, insight and humanity and a production that boasts two of the finest performances to hit New York in recent years "Skylight" could melt away much of the cynicism aimed these days at Broadway simply by winning an audience with its fiercely intelligent and uncompromising devotion to and here's a concept words.
"Language belongs to the past," mourns the play's gruffly eloquent protagonist (if indeed the work's complicated layers allow any of its three characters to be pro- or antagonist). The character, played by the wonderful Michael Gambon with a grace and poignancy matched by that of co-star Lia Williams, couldn't be more wrong.
Essentially a two-hour series of conversations, "Skylight," as written by Hare and directed by Richard Eyre, has the pacing and texture of any plot-driven drama, its movement coming from an almost methodical peeling back of the illusions and defenses its characters have devised. Imagine being given the opportunity to thrash out some unfinished business with a long-ago lover, finishing only when something approaching truth is left when sky light fills a dark room. Hare has done more than imagine it: He's put it onstage.
Williams plays Kyra Hollis, a 30-year-old teacher living in an impoverished neighborhood in north London, selflessly devoting her life to poor, uninterested students in a mostly futile search for "one really good pupil." An anachronism in an age of self-interest and greed, Kyra lives a resigned, lonely life in a low-rent flat (John Gunter's set is the production's only misstep, dominated as it is by a large, picture-window scrim against the flat's back wall, allowing the audience, although apparently not the characters, to see a rather unconvincing but nonetheless intrusive skyline).
Kyra's modest home fails miserably in keeping out the winter chill, or visitors for that matter: The first to arrive on a snowy night is Edward Sergeant (Christian Camargo), the 18-year-old son of the married man with whom Kyra had an intense six-year affair several years prior. That man is Tom (Gambon), a 50-year-old restaurateur whose financial success has done little to help him over the grief of losing both his wife (to cancer) and his beloved mistress.
Edward has come to plead for Kyra's help in stirring Tom out of his mean, guilt-ridden grief. Shortly after Edward leaves, unsuccessful in his entreaties, Tom himself shows up at Kyra's apartment. Big, coarse and with all the smug satisfaction of a self-made man, Tom arrives with the simple pronouncement, "I thought it was time."
Time or not, Tom and Kyra plunge themselves back to their shared past as they rehash, have sex, and rehash some more, stripping away each other's convenient memories of what happened and why. They don't do so without reluctance: "Don't you think I have enough memories?" Kyra asks when Tom invites himself to dinner. "Why should I want any more?"
Had Hare written a conventional he-said/she-said melodrama, "Skylight" would lose its audience fairly quickly. What he's done instead is to use the structure as a means of examining in relentless, unsparing detail the ways in which people romanticize their pasts, their loves, even themselves. No one, certainly neither character, is spared this vivisection: What seems on the surface to be a showdown between a greedy, conservative businessman and an idealistic, liberal do-gooder is gradually revealed to be much more complex. Audience sympathy shifts from one character to the other and back again, with Hare and Eyre in total control of the emotional tides.
Not to mention Gambon and Williams, both of whom bring an amazing command of talent to their Broadway debuts. Gambon, an Irishman revered on the London stage , gives his rough-hewn character a grace that goes beyond the physical (although even that, given the actor's hulking size, would be accomplishment enough). Despite an appearance that betrays every minute of the character's 50 years, Gambon is utterly believable in the lasting enchantment he casts over the much younger (and, with Williams in the role, infinitely more beautiful) Kyra. Even at his most atrociously boorish told he should listen to a woman's problems before bedding her, he responds, "Listening is halfway to begging" Gambon's Tom seems in full possession of a heart long past broken. When sobs, loud or silent, erupt from somewhere deep in the actor, we're stung though not surprised.
But Gambon couldn't carry this play alone "Skylight" requires an even match and Williams proves every bit his equal. By turns soul-shakingly vulnerable and implacably merciless, Williams is thoroughly convincing even when delivering one of the playwright's trademark political diatribes (especially one in defense of society's much-maligned do-gooders under attack from self-serving politicians and journalists, apparently a problem as much in Britain as here). That newcomer Camargo, a recent Juilliard grad appearing as young Edward, holds his own in his comparatively brief scenes with Williams is high praise indeed.
In fact, it's the gangly Edward who delivers the final touch of grace that Hare imparts to his ravaged characters in a brief scene that serves as a coda of hope, however vague and uncertain. After all the philosophical sparring and political debating is laid to rest, "Skylight" seems more than anything else to be a play about the incalculable loss of love. Hare's words will resonate long after this limited-run production has packed up and moved out.