Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy in 'Skylight' (Photo: John Haynes)
Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy in ‘Skylight’ (Photo: John Haynes)

At 29, Carey Mulligan has quietly but decisively emerged as one of the finest actresses in the English language. Whether in her Broadway debut in The Seagull in 2008 or her Oscar-nominated turn in the 2009 British indie An Education, she projects an intelligence and vulnerability that are mesmerizing to watch. Now, she’s offering a master class in stage performance in an exquisite Broadway revival of David Hare’s 1995 play Skylight, playing through June 21 at the John Golden Theatre. Somebody give this woman a Tony.

Matthew Beard in 'Skylight' (Photo: John Haynes)
Matthew Beard in ‘Skylight’ (Photo: John Haynes)

Mulligan plays Kyra, a 30ish idealist in 1990s London who has rejected the accoutrements of her upper-middle-class upbringing and education for a job teaching kids in a low-income neighborhood — while living in a cramped cell-block of an apartment in another slum-like hood. She’s landed there after a failed love affair with a much older, married restauranteur, Tom (Bill Nighy), a Thatcherite entrepreneur who now hopes to re-spark their romance following the death of his wife.

Their relationship, needless to say, is complicated — a point that is underscored by the scenes that bookend this mostly two-handed drama, in which Tom’s now-18-year-old son, Edward (the bright-eyed, puckish Matthew Beard), makes his own appeal to Kyra, who apparently became a welcome fixture in the family home before the affair burst into the open.

For Kyra and Tom, there is a mutual sense of betrayal to be explored over conversation and cooking (and canoodling) in Kyra’s dingy and underheated little flat. (The magnificently vertical set, with a backdrop suggesting layers of stacked pre-fab apartments from the ’60s, is the work of Bob Crowley.)

The personal dynamics, which are only gradually revealed, merely provide a context for the real thrust of Hare’s drama, which is a dissection of the political and social milieu in the early ’90s — the emergence of a kind of moral superiority among the nouveau wealthy. “Suddenly this new disease!” Kyra tells Tom. “Self-pity of the rich! No longer do they simply accumulate. Now they want people to line up and thank them as well.”

This sort of talk — and Kyra’s decision to make the betterment of the underprivileged not just a project but a lifestyle choice — feel like a double rejection to Tom, who regards her with both romantic and paternal affection. Nighy, with his wiry frame and easy stage manner, tears into the role with loose-limbed, finger-pointing gusto, stopping just short of histrionics in a well-tailored dervish of a performance under Stephen Daldry’s expert direction.

But it is Mulligan who consistently holds your attention. With her mousy brown hair and gawky frame, she’s not a runway-ready ingenue. But her wide, pale face is an IMAX-worthy screen that projects her emotional state from moment to moment, from the shock of a cutting remark to the glib triumph of a point scored. Like the spaghetti meal she prepares in her spare kitchen during the first act, Mulligan lays bare the raw ingredients of her character — and exposes the subtle shifts during preparation and cooking until unveiling a wholly satisfying, and deeply sustaining finished dish. Grade: A

Nighy and Mulligan in 'Skylight' (Photo: John Haynes)
Nighy and Mulligan in ‘Skylight’ (Photo: John Haynes)