Imagine an experiment where the script is the control and the production the variable; do that and you’ll get a sense of the expectations when staging a work that has been preserved in performance and is out there for study. Often what comes before is used as a kind of yardstick to measure future productions. That’s not to say the original cast recording of a musical or filmed production of a play is definitive or even the best, but it does cut its own path, against which what comes later is measured in standard deviations. Has there ever been a production of Gypsy that wasn’t informed by Ethel Merman, or of A Streetcar Named Desire in which Marlon Brando was not used as a point of comparison? I ask this question because I just saw what Columbus Civic Theater is doing with David Hare’s Skylight, a play that just won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play in 2015 and was chosen by patrons as the “audience choice” play of their season, and it led me to view a video of the 2014 London production that made for an interesting comparison – more on that later.
Skylight premiered in London in 1995 and then on Broadway a year later. It is about Kyra Hollis, a youngish teacher visited by two men from her past, Tom and Edward Sergeant, a father and son. Kyra worked for the family years ago, having left abruptly when it was discovered that she was having an affair with Tom, the father. Tom’s wife has now died, and Edward visits Kyra out of worry for how his dad has been dealing with it. Tom arrives later the same day to hash things out with Kyra, perhaps in an attempt to rekindle what they once had. The entire play takes place in Kyra’s apartment in a less than glamorous section of London, and over the course of the night Tom and Kyra debate the merits of their past as well as their current lives, separated so drastically by differences of social class.
I went into this production not knowing the story and not having seen the recording of the recent London run. The first thing I noticed was the terrific set designed by Richard Albert representing Kyra’s run down apartment. The space looks lived in and worn, bookshelves and cabinets looking lovably less than perfect, with a raised area for a small fridge, sink, and stovetop, all functional. I’ve seen many plays at Columbus Civic with a variety of sets – some awful, some very good – and this is the best; it makes terrific use of the space and its part in telling the story.
Edwyn Williams is Tom, the successful and rich restauranteur, and his performance is all bluster and consonants, forcefully spraying his words like a pushy salesman. Mr. Williams plays Tom as bossy and charmless, and even a bit whiny. He has what Oprah calls an “ugly cry,” as in an emotional moment near the end his entire countenance puckers, revealing his struggle to produce tears. I sensed not a drop of chemistry between his Tom and Kyra, played rather demurely by Priyanka Shetty. Ms. Shetty has wonderful, crisp diction, and a strong speech in the second act in which her passion runs true, but I can’t grasp what she could have ever seen in Tom, and because of that I can’t follow why Kyra makes the decision to revisit her past with Tom at the end of the first act. As someone who has “revisited” the past with exes after the breakup, it is always bittersweet, reminding me both of why I was attracted to them in the first place while also reinforcing why we were no longer together; I don’t sense any of this with Kyra, who smiles frequently and comes off as submissive without much reason.
Matthew Sierra plays Tom’s concerned son Edward, whose appearances bookend the play. Mr. Sierra’s hairstyle and clothing look right out of 1995 (as they should – the play is set in that year), and he has a kind of nervousness that is difficult to interpret. His wonky British accent doesn’t help much, as it changes sometimes mid-sentence; it adds to an off-kilter malaise that clouds this production and its characters. I will say that his reappearance at the end was most welcome, as his chaste affection for Kyra is more clear and he seems far more relaxed.
At the end of the day, Columbus Civic Theater’s Skylight is not an embarrassment to anyone, but I don’t feel that it shows any of the artists involved (save for Richard Albert and that great set) in the best light either. It’s a bland, mediocre production that flounders, neither entirely fish nor fowl. The actors appear to be trying so hard to tell this story on stage without the proper guidance. A different interpretation would be fine, but I felt like this production lacks any interpretation at all, any distinctive personality or viewpoint. It is performed in a pattern of line *pause* line *pause* that is unnatural and stilted, more like a staged reading.
The audience seemed to like Skylight the night that I attended with my friend, but we left the show bewildered and feeling like we were missing something. The production left me puzzled, and the story didn’t make much sense to me. I thought, “It must be the play.” Later I saw the National Theatre Live film of a performance of the 2014 revival of Skylight (the same production and cast that traveled across the ocean this year to win the Tony Award); that’s when I realized that the problem wasn’t with the play – it was this production. I viewed the video of the London production, and suddenly the play made sense! The script was the same, but the performances so completely different in a way that supported and enhanced the material. I didn’t know so much of the play was funny! Bill Nighy is quick and witty as Tom, and it’s easy to see what Carey Mulligan as Kyra would see in him. Lines that land with a thud in Columbus Civic’s production were greeted with laughter in London, and moments where characters experience shifts in mood were now clear and easy to follow.
Is it fair to compare this video to the production at Columbus Civic Theater? I don’t see why not, as both have the same script from which to work. I didn’t go in with preconceived notions by having seen the London production first; I entered blank, wanting to be entertained, and only afterward sought out the other production.
** out of ****
Skylight continues through to November 22nd in the Columbus Civic Theater located at 3837 Indianola Avenue, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuscivic.org