It's the most timeworn story in melodrama: A wealthy patrician falls in love with a working-class girl about half his age. He is a smart, cold-blooded opportunist; she is beautiful, starry-eyed, and full of ideals. He is her sugar daddy; she is his spiritual guide. They begin a six-year adulterous relationship that inevitably ends badly, after his wife sniffs out the scandal. She packs up and moves off to a cold ramshackle apartment on the other side of town; he pursues her three years later, after his wife dies of cancer. In the traditional version they would fall in love anew.
No so in Skylight, the domestic drama by British playwright David Hare which opens Shotgun Players 2009 season. In Hare's play, neither Tom, the well-heeled restaurant owner (played by John Mercer), nor Kyra, his former mistress (Emily Jordan), seems wholly sympathetic. Nor are they able to paper over their differences. The play takes place over the course of a single night in Kyra's flat, which has all the tell-tale signs of a single woman living on a budget: the space heater, the cactus on the counter, the place under the sink where she stows plastic bags. During that night, Kyra receives two surprise visitors. First, Tom's eighteen-year-old son Edward (Carl Holvick-Thomas), who complains about his dad's detachment and says he misses having a maternal figure about the house. Then the old man himself, who arrives in a chauffeured limousine to say, "Baby, I want you back" — with reservations.
In the hours that follow, Tom and Kyra try to iron out the difficulties in their relationship. Kyra chides Tom for his arrogance and his dissolute lifestyle; Tom upbraids Kyra for refusing to leave her teaching job and run away with him. Through brittle, naturalistic dialogue, Hare brings to light all the dicey social issues that prevent them from getting back together: the generation gap, the disparity in social class, Tom's elitism verses Kyra's populist sensibility. (Hare couldn't resist making her a mouthpiece for the underclass.) Of the two of them, Tom comes off as more of the ogre and he's ultimately beyond recall (he's also a better character). Nonetheless, Kyra seems reluctant to let him go. Perhaps old passions die hard, perhaps Kyra gets seduced by the idea of being useful to someone. In any case, the line between good girl and bad guy seems perilously thin.
Skylight requires great stamina on behalf of its actors, who have to carry two hours of straight dialogue with no scene breaks except for a single intermission. Considering the gravity of its social-class subtext, it's a play of relative inaction: A father and son both visit the father's ex-mistress in the course of an evening. The father's visit results in a long, protracted argument. At the end, a decision is made. The father leaves, forlornly, in a cab, asking the ex-mistress to stop by one of his restaurants some time. The son comes back with a lavish breakfast, presumably from the dad's restaurant. It's a combination of deft writing, forceful acting, and astute directing — by Shotgun Players' artistic director Patrick Dooley — that makes the play seem like a taut drama rather than a rambling conversation. Jordan and Mercer are saddled with enormous responsibility. They have to tell the whole story of their affair in flashback, and still make the dialogue crackle. They have to oscillate from relationship mode to social commentary mode without breaking character or making the play seem too much like a class diatribe.
Most importantly, they have to reveal the emotional lives of their characters in small ways. For Jordan, this amounts to the harried way that she chops an onion or grinds pepper into a sauce pan; for Mercer, it's the punctilious act of picking an onion skin from an already grimy floor and throwing it in the waste basket. In one of the most freighted moments of the play, the veteran restaurateur picks up his mistress' cheese grater and tries to figure out how to use it. He's been enlisted to grind a hard gray lump of cheese that would never pass muster in his own restaurant.
Named for the glass ceiling that hung over Tom's wife when she died, Skylight is rife with symbols. There's the reading material on Kyra's bookshelf — classic novels and Internet manuals — that substitutes for real-world stuff (she doesn't read newspapers or own a television). There's Frank, the chauffeur parked outside, waiting to whisk Tom back to his own upper-class bubble. There are the hip-hop records that Edward listens to, showing that his own class pretensions are the opposite of his father.
Skylight is the type of drama that goes over well in Berkeley. Tom's relationship with Kyra is more paternal than romantic, and most parents around here could relate to the problem of giving a child all the trappings of your aristocratic lifestyle, only to have her move off to some inner-city neighborhood, opt for a low-paying teaching job, and acquire high-minded ideas about socioeconomics and education reform. It's natural to empathize with Tom but easier to side with Kyra, and the poetic justice in the end — when Edward and Kyra feast on the spoils of Tom's restaurant enterprise — could never be lost on a Berkeley audience. In her most endearing moment, Kyra delivers a blunt summation of the play: "You fuck me first. Then you criticize my lifestyle. ... Doing it the other way 'round, of course, would be a terrible tactical mistake."
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