If you did not know you'd entered a time warp April 2 when you walked into the Golden Theatre, it wasn't because the producers hadn't left enough clues around.
There was no paparazzi-peppered red carpet out front. Celebs made their way into the theatre free of fixed smiles and sound bites: Bob Balaban (from the recent A Delicate Balance revival), Tracey Ullman (who reacquainted herself with New York theatre via The Band Wagon), Bobby Cannavale (bracing himself for love and war with Patti LuPone in a one-night Acting Company benefit performance of The Rose Tattoo April 27) and Vogue editor Anna Wintour (with Baz Luhrmann).
But best and most evocative of all — if I may say so myself! — was a Playbill that harkened back to old-fashioned, solidly acted, involving theatre, which seems to be precisely what the producers are peddling with their imported revival of Skylight.
Emotionally, the cover speaks to another era. Under a bygone Playbill logo (sans the white borders) is an exquisite shot of the show's star-crossed lovers, Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy, struggling to rekindle an old, but not-quite-extinguished, flame.
Lead producer Robert Fox was quick to give credit where credit was due: "That was Scott's idea," he said of his producing partner, Scott Rudin. "It's back to the old days. The picture was taken by John Haynes, who photographed the London production."
And what was Rudin's inspiration? "Are you kidding? I grew up with that logo," he replied with a broad smile. "Did you open it up? It's the old Playbill title page, too."
Nighy plays a rich, widowed restaurateur who shows up one night, out of nowhere, on the doorstep of an ex-mistress, who subsequently has made a new life for herself school-teaching underprivileged kids in the poor Temple Fortune section of London.
"Temple Fortune was the original title," said its author, the prolific David Hare. "Then it was pointed out to me Temple Fortune was almost exclusively a Jewish quarter of London, and, since the play has no relevance to Jewish issues, I had to change it.
"I decided this idea of this room that the character built with this skylight as his wife was dying — and his guilt about building her this room to die in — was something that was motivating his whole behavior. And that's why it's called Skylight."
This is not Nighy's first time at the rodeo with this role. In 1996, he replaced Michael Gambon in London when Gambon made his one and only (but Tony-nominated) appearance on Broadway. And, when Nighy made his Broadway debut ten years later in Hare's The Vertical Hour, he was saying Skylight was his favorite role. He was still saying that two years ago when he and Hare teamed for a trio of TV movies. "He said, 'Tom Sergeant is the only role I've ever longed to go back to,' and my wheels started turning," said Hare. "For 15 years, people have asked to do a revival, and I always refused. I said, 'You have to find somebody who can fight the memory of Michael Gambon and Bill Nighy.' That answer turned out to be Bill Nighy.
"I think it's a very different performance. Last time I don't think anybody gave him the amount of care it needed. It was very much the follow-up to Gambon. The degree of scrutiny that our director, Stephen Daldry, brings to it wasn't there. I think Bill found it hugely pleasurable to go back and revisit it and be able to enrich it."
Indeed, he does: "I think possibly I feel I'm less harsh on him, [have] more compassion for him. As you get older, you understand that people are what they are and don't always emerge intact from whatever experiences they've had. He's still infuriating, but the play is sophisticated enough that both parties talk rationally at times and both talk sense at times. I think perhaps I'm just a little more generous to him."
Mulligan made a memorable, impossibly romantic entrance on Broadway in 2008 as Nina in The Seagull. Almost every night, she'd tear all over the theatre arriving onstage as a snow flurry of girl exuberance and starry-eyed innocence. In Skylight, she just unlocks the door and walks into her apartment, lugging groceries.
Her Kyra couldn't be farther away from her Nina, and that's the way the actress likes it. "I'm always trying to find something different," she admitted. "I don't want to explore things over and over again. This felt like the most adult role I've played onstage, and probably on film. Kyra is pretty sturdy and grounded. She knows who she is and what's she's doing. She's got a big history with Tom, but she knows now what her life is going to look like for herself. She has made that decision and she steadfastly pursues that. The only way their relationship could happen in any way now is if he were to change and accept her future as it is, but he's incapable of that."
There is a third character in Skylight — Tom's teenage son who took a fancy to Kyra when she was part of the family unit (before his mum discovers some hanky-panky going on) — and his appearances are parentheses around the central love story.
"I haven't timed it, but it must be about an hour and a half that I'm off stage," noted Matthew Beard, who racks up a trilogy of firsts with this (first stage role, first West End role, first Broadway role). "I had to find something that was mind-numbing enough not to take me completely away from the character," he said. "I couldn't read a book or watch a film. That would completely deconstruct me. It had to be something quite simple. So I ended up becoming a master of origami. The Japanese art of folding paper into decorative shapes and figures, and I present Carey at the end of every show with a different, unique animal — a dinosaur or something. In London, she amassed a good 60 or 70 of these things, and she's kept them." He's abundantly aware of the company he's keeping. "As actors, they're completely different, but they both go to the same result, which is truthful. Bill is this ball of energy, and Carey is so still and strong that when she blinks, it feels like a speech." How he got on this powerhouse team he'll never know. The son in the original Broadway Skylight was re-cast stateside. "I don't know who went to bat for me, and I haven't asked the question for fear they'll go, 'Oh? Really? You shouldn't be here.'"