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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.
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