Monday, October 27, 2014

Skylight and Ether Dome: The Social and the Personal

Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in Skylight (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Much as I value the literacy, intelligence and technical finesse of the English playwright David Hare, I often find his plays heavy going. The political apparatus at the heart of most of the ones I’ve encountered, from Plenty to Stuff Happens, swings like a censer, blanketing the stage with the whiff of importance; generally I find that he needs a more elastic movement, a lighter step. But Skylight, the 1995 drama that was revived in the West End last summer – in a production by Stephen Daldry, bound for Broadway, that the NT Live series has been transmitting in HD – is a fine piece of work. Bill Nighy (in the role he followed Michael Gambon in eighteen years ago) plays Tom Sergeant, a successful restauranteur whose wife and partner Alice has died of cancer. Carey Mulligan is Kyra Hollis, who came into the Sergeants’ lives as an eighteen-year-old girl, took over the management of one of their restaurants, and became virtually a member of the family. She also became Tom’s lover; they conducted an affair for six years before Alice found out, at which point Kyra, unable to face her, walked out on them both. When Tom finds her again, a year after Alice’s death, Kyra is living in a chilly flat she’s taken over from a friend and teaching high school to working-class kids. She isn’t expecting her old lover to come back into her life, though he’s certainly on her mind: unbeknownst to Tom, his eighteen-year-old son Edward (Matthew Beard) dropped by to see her just hours earlier to beg her to rescue his lonely, rootless father. By the end of the first act, Kyra and Tom seem to have reconciled. Act two explores the reasons the reconciliation comes too late to take hold.

Carey Mulligan & Matthew Beard in Skylight. (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Skylight has, of course, a social point. The world into which the Sergeants welcomed Kyra at eighteen is a world of privilege; she worked hard for them, but she was pampered and learned to live in style and expect the best. She threw all that away when she left them to start a new life, and though she’s retained an air of elegance (which Mulligan conveys) she has a fierce commitment to the world she’s lately discovered, where women and men – and the teenagers she teaches – have to struggle, she says, just to survive. Her experience has politicized her; she tells Tom that at last she’s seen what England is really like. Tom gives lip service to some kind of admiration for her choice, but he feels no affinity for it; to him, to his mind poverty is what you do your damnedest to avoid, not what you elect to align yourself with. If he had been born into poverty himself – the play doesn’t address his origins – he’d be a modern version of a Shaw anti-hero like Undershaft in Major Barbara. Tom thinks Kyra is throwing away her potential; he wants to lure her back into his world. There’s a good moment, which Nighy shapes into a sprightly little comic number, in which Kyra asks Tom to grate some parmesan for the spaghetti she’s serving him and he winces at the little square of leftover cheese wrapped untidily in worn-out plastic wrap and tries to persuade her to let him send his driver out for the real thing. (Kyra is appalled that he’s made his driver wait downstairs during their conversation; it’s evidence to her of his disregard for the feelings and the dignity of an entire class of human being.) Much as I like Skylight, its limitation is that Hare is so much more sympathetic to Kyra’s point of view. Shaw, who was finally a satirist, managed to make Major Barbara’s romantic view of the London poor simultaneously sweet and foolish, but Hare believes too much in Kyra’s choices to allow her tirade about being on the front lines with real fighters to sound even a tad ridiculous.

Normally I’m not a fan of Carey Mulligan’s, but this is the best work I’ve seen from her; she comes across as less actressy than usual, and playing scenes with Bill Nighy and the inventive young Matthew Beard (whom I’ve liked on screen, in An Education – he played Mulligan’s high-school boy friend – and When Did You Last See Your Father?) appears to warm her up. Nighy gives a remarkably skillful and very funny performance; watching him is like watching a consummate music-hall performer, and even though anyone who’s seen him in other leading roles will recognize his bag of tricks – the stutters, the pauses, the altered punctuation, the sped-up phrasing like manic trills on a xylophone – they’re as welcome as the shtick of a beloved comic. It’s in the downbeat moments that I find him less convincing, though he stays clear of melodrama. I saw Gambon play the role in New York and he was profoundly moving; Nighy never gets there. Perhaps I was less inclined to be uncritical of his showman-like acting here because just a couple of weeks ago I saw him, cast bizarrely against type, as a closeted gay coal miner in the Thatcher-era movie Pride, and his understatement was a total surprise. The role took him out of himself completely. (It’s one of the best pieces of acting I’ve seen at the movies this year.) But I had a wonderful time watching him in Skylight, and the play is a triumph of craft and wit, with characters who capture the imagination and language that really sings.

Hannah Tamminen, Michael Bakkensen, and Lee Sellars in Ether Dome. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

I was definitely on the side of Elizabeth Egloff’s Ether Dome, a new play about the development of anesthetics in the middle of the nineteenth century that Boston’s Huntington Theatre is producing in collaboration with Hartford Stage, San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse and Houston’s Alley Theatre. It’s fascinating subject matter, and Egloff has written a big-boned historical drama, thickly peopled (sixteen actors play twenty-five parts), that attempts to dramatize the lives of the colorful main characters, Horace Wells (Michael Bakkensen) – the first dentist to put a patient to sleep during an operation – and his pupil-turned-partner, William Morton (Tom Patterson). The production, directed by Michael Wilson, is wide and theatrical, and James Youmans’ set and projections and David Lander’s lighting are first-rate. Playing on a curved cyclorama, the projections not only shift locations but provide a cinematic feel, while throughout the play the stage retains the shape of an operating theatre – the Dome is the space at Massachusetts General Hospital where the surgeons perform.

Unfortunately, though, it’s a terrible piece of writing: rambling, thin, with underwritten characters that simply don’t play. (It’s significant that not one member of the large cast gives a memorable performance; I don’t think it’s their fault, or the fault of Michael Wilson, who is normally an excellent director of actors.) For two of the three acts, Egloff tries to leaven the sometimes gruesome material with absurdist comedy that feels odd and uncomfortable; then abruptly, in act three, she abandons it for sheer melodrama. I don’t know anything about the history of anesthetics, so I have to assume she’s attempting to stay reasonably true to the facts, but in her version the story of William Morton, who turns out to be a swindler and scam artist, is so implausible as to be baffling. (He’s wanted in fourteen states yet it takes his pursuers years to catch up with him, and it never occurs to him that it might be unsafe for him to make himself famous for developing ether.) The whole show is a head-scratcher.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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