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‘Skylight’ Theater Review: Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy Bring New Fire to an Old Romance

Nighy’s performance is deliriously over the top, and the night’s biggest laugh comes when Mulligan does a spot-on impersonation of her co-star

Last autumn, the Broadway season kicked off with a play about an adulterous couple, written by a political conservative. Now nearing its end, Broadway hosts another play about an adulterous couple, this one written by a political liberal.

It’s a revival of David Hare’s “Skylight,” which opened Thursday at the John Golden Theatre in New York, and it follows the revival of Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing,” which opened in October at the Roundabout.

Romance and politics, as it turns out, have a lot to do with each other, especially if you’re a British playwright at the top of his game. Despite some very misguided sing-along interludes, the Stoppard revival featured two fine performers, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ewan McGregor, who played against the text, which had the effect of softening many of Stoppard’s brickbats aimed at liberal politics, mores and pop culture. If you’re a liberal, it made the evening more than bearable.

Under the direction of Stephen Daldry, the “Skylight” revival is best avoided if you’re a conservative. As with “The Real Thing,” the woman (Carey Mulligan) is the all-suffering liberal and the man (Bill Nighy) is a self-made prick, as if there’s any other kind. When it comes to playing sufferers and pricks, you can’t do much better than Mulligan and Nighy. It is brilliant typecasting and the play sparkles with wit and verve and even a little pathos for the do-gooder Kyra, who misses the good life of her former lover-employer Tom, since she’s now living in a freezing flat and can’t even afford to buy edible cheese on her school-teacher-to-the-poor salary.

Kyra isn’t just liberal. She might actually be an ascetic, at least after her affair with Tom went south. It’s what gives Mulligan’s performance, and the play, it’s spine. Kyra, who does enjoy a good breakfast, thought her affair with the much older Tom was alright, as long as his wife didn’t know. When the Mrs. discovered the truth, Kyra split without a word, and “Skylight” is the story of two ex-lovers’ reunion a few years later.

Michael Gambon played Tom on Broadway nearly 20 years ago, and he was the epitome of refined English elegance. Nighy’s take is much more fun, and you can see why at age 18 Kyra was overcome by his “energy.” Hare didn’t write a May-December romance — Nighy looks every day of his 65 years, even though Tom is called “middle-aged” — but there’s no denying that’s what you get in this revival.

No matter, here’s a self-made man who bristles with the satisfaction of having done it on his own, and that energy can’t be contained in a mere swagger. This titan of the London restaurant world nearly gives off electrical shocks that only find their release when his foot pushes a chair or his tongue cleans the fetid air of Kyra’s kitchen.

It’s a performance that’s deliriously over the top, and it might not work if it isn’t for Mulligan being so understated and grounded in her convictions. In fact, the night’s biggest laugh comes when she does a spot-on impersonation of her co-star, kicking the furniture and jabbing her elbows. Mulligan knows Nighy is too much, but her Kyra wouldn’t have Tom any other way.

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