When old lovers get together — perchance you know whereof I speak — a variety of dangerous impulses float through the air. There is the pull of nostalgic memory: If the love affair is really long ago, it can represent one's youth as much as a particular relationship. Yet few such encounters are devoid of fury: the simmering anger that comes when two people have gone completely different ways, or failed to change, or otherwise manifested whatever made the relationship fail in the first place. Old lovers know all the buttons to push, all the soft spots to probe, all the wounds to rip open.
David Hare's "Skylight" is about a meeting in a London flat between such a pair of old lovers. He is a successful conceptual restaurateur in the Rich Melman mold (or, since we're in the Britain of the mid-1990s, the Gordon Ramsay mold), although his once-curated, now-floated business is, alas, in the clutches of the callow MBAs. She was once his waitress, then his mistress of six years, always a brilliant and idealistic young woman who has become a teacher in the inner-city and lives in austere circumstances mostly by choice. Since this is a Hare drama, it is a political play masquerading as a personal one.
"Skylight," which is mostly a two-character affair, briefly bookended by appearances by the man's 18-year-old son, has the patina of balance. It skewers the idealism of faux-bohemians determined to make an educational difference in lives their own privileged backgrounds barely equip them to understand. And it brilliantly nails the ways bankers and businesspeople have shrewdly redefined their own brand these last couple of decades, forcing us all not to think of them merely as people who make money for themselves in the time-honored tradition, but as benevolent job-creators whose entrepreneurial success makes them qualified to opine as experts on all manner of socially oriented subjects once left to specialists, not the least of which is urban education.
Hare was writing about the clash of two very distinct opposites — two contrasting paths taken by the movers and shakers — in Tony Blair's Britain, which translates, mostly, to Barack Obama's America, even if this play suddenly makes you aware of how much and how fast technology has changed everything. When it comes to a play very much about the legitimacy of stepping off the grid, the 1990s seem light-years away. Who now could make a choice like that of Kyra Hollis, the teacher who has banished the news from her life? No one. Was 1995 so very long ago? Guess so.
Still, much of "Skylight" is about the timeless scenario of two former lovers debating the morality of their collective past (he was married, although his wife now has died of cancer) and trying to figure out if it is, as it seems, too late for them now. You can see them both as symbols of their political philosophies (is it too late for a political reconciliation between lefty traditionalists and market-embracing Clintonites, Hare was asking), but they are also recognizable as two people for whom a wide gulf opened up to separate their souls. If you had such a relationship in your past, you'll recognize how deftly this very intense and intellectually stimulating drama captures that sense of a moment that has passed. The characters can long for each other, but there just is too darn much life in their way now.
I've seen "Skylight," one of Hare's leanest and most powerful plays, twice in recent months (the first time was at American Players Theatre in Wisconsin last summer). With a set by Todd Rosenthal that shows us all the nooks and crannies of Kyra's frigid flat, William Brown's Court Theatre production is the far more elegant of the two. Brown, a visual craftsman, has cast two very articulate and emotional actors in Laura Rook (whose zesty work here is likely to be noticed elsewhere) and Philip Earl Johnson (a most honest actor). The show is underscored with resonant music and features many long and elegant light cues (designed by Jesse Klug), wherein we can watch dawn over London and the like. One admires much of this — there are no obviously false notes in a production unflaggingly accurate in its depiction of how Britishers look and sound — but all the soft-gauze prettiness comes at a price. Even Matt Farabee, who plays the teen who is, to some extent, a victim of this affair, is just a tad too sweet.
Brown's sentimental production exquisitely captures the pull of nostalgia, a crucial quality, but the production is less sure-footed when it comes to sex and anger, which are a part of the equation here. The show lacks a sharp edge, and thus it runs out of steam before this long play has explored everything it wants to explore. Johnson offers up an exceptionally vulnerable performance, which is apt, given that this character, whose name is Tom Sergeant, has come to his old lover's place for solace after watching his wife die of cancer and torpedo his value system. That part works beautifully. But Sergeant, we're told, is greatly feared by the employees of his eateries. That we do not see at all, which brings me to the sex, since we also don't see much lust on either character's part, which is generally at least part of the reason why one returns to the scene of a past relationship.
In this production, it feels like the characters are further apart in age than the roughly 20 years Hare intended, which rather skews the dynamic. And although so much of what Rook does here is involving and powerful, she capitulates a little too easily when her character knows a whole lot more than this actress implies about the impossibility of turning back the clock.
All that said, "Skylight" is one of those plays that doesn't easily depart from your head, and one of those dramas that you constantly find yourself testing against your own choices in life. Well, maybe I should speak for myself. "Don't you think I've got enough memories?" one party observes at one point. "Why should I want any more?" Indeed. Old lovers can be exciting, terrifying and, well, wearying. Who even wants to go there?
Through Feb. 10 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.; running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes; tickets: $45-$65 at 773-753-4472 or courttheatre.org
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