Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Illumination night

Amanda Fulks ponders the cost/benefit ratio of her life with Joe Lanza in Skylight.

People often ask me, "What's the must-see show in town?" and sometimes we're lucky enough that it's hard to answer. But right now there's no competition: Skylight, by David Hare, at the Merrimack Rep, is the must-see show in town, no question.

Only it's not quite "in town;" seeing it means schlepping up to Lowell. And, I admit, the production's not perfect. Still, it's worth the trip, if only as a reminder of the kind of intellectual stimulus we almost never get from our university theatres, or really any of our theatres here in the "Athens of America;" indeed, my last local theatrical brain-rush I think came from the Merrimack, too, with A Delicate Balance last spring. How is it this little house in the boondocks manages to do what Harvard and BU can't? I really don't know, but maybe Diane Paulus and Peter DuBois could make the trek up to Lowell to find out.

And maybe you should, too (while you're up there, eat at La Boniche, that should take the edge off). But be prepared to have your cultural assumptions challenged rather than massaged, even if (admit it) current events are making our cultural assumptions ring a little hollow these days - indeed, it's a shock to realize that Skylight, which directly engages our once-happy-go-lucky free-market mindset, actually dates from 1996. That's twelve years ago. And American playwrights still haven't caught up to it, probably because "political" American authors are generally in knots over formal experimentation, while I find over and over again that very traditional forms - like Hare's classic, naturalistic two-hander - are much better at holding the mirror up to our changing natures with a minimum of fuss. And then British authors in general, from the Victorians on down, have always been better than Americans at showing how money shapes character (which in America is something of a taboo - unless things end tragically, as in Fitzgerald and Dreiser).

Indeed, Hare is very much in the tradition of Balzac (ok, he's French) and Trollope - he's fascinated with how the idealist in each of us finds his or her way in an all-too-material world. In Skylight, as in Plenty and The Secret Rapture, said idealism is personified in a woman, and its opposing animus in a man - in particular, in the person of defiant schoolteacher Kyra (Amanda Fulks), who years ago walked out of a cozy affair - and business relationship - with successful restaurateur Tom (Christopher McHale) when their extra-curricular activities were discovered by his wife (who, intriguingly, was also Kyra's best friend). Since then, Kyra has devoted herself to teaching the urban poor (rather than handling Tom's dough as well as his you-know-what), while the ever-richer restaurateur watched his long-suffering wife die of cancer (she spent her last days gazing up at the eponymous skylight, which he had built for her). Now Tom's back - he's preceded by a pleading visit from his son - to half-beg, and half-demand, Kyra's return to his side, and they spend a long night of the soul, like so many symbolic theatrical couples before them, pondering whether that rapprochement is, indeed, possible.

It's a neat set-up, and most of the local reviews have concentrated on its melodramatic, guilty-passion dynamic - will Kyra return to the arms of her lost love (at left)? Or will she kick him out on his selfish capitalist ass? This is a solid hook for a review - and to be fair, it's a clear component of, and limit on, Hare's form - but alas, it's precisely at the level of soap opera that the Merrimack production wobbles; there's simply not enough sexual chemistry between this happy uncouple to convince us of their sudden, impulsive tryst, largely because actor McHale doesn't exude the sexy-ugly vibe that the original Tom, Michael Gambon, all but personified (McHale's no matinee idol, but he's still too good-looking!).

It's rather at the level of philosophical inquiry that the Merrimack team takes flight; director Towers has beautifully articulated the play's arguments, and actors Fulks and McHale give both sides of the debate their passionate commitment. The resulting rhetorical attacks leave the theatre deep in that silence that only comes from collective thought - my idea of theatrical heaven, by the way. We begin to wonder, in a sense, what have we been thinking all these years? Why, indeed, do capitalists see human beings as commodities, and why have we colluded with them in their delusion that "greed is good" and that they're engaged in "the creation of wealth"? On the other hand, why does anyone, anywhere, suffer the privations that come with charity, if success in our culture is indeed only judged materially? It's no secret which side of this debate the author favors (he even gives Kyra a charming valedictory at the finish) - still, Hare gives the blandishments of libertarian capitalism their due, and then some; indeed, he perhaps better limns the needy, almost infantile energy of the successful businessman than he does the tightly-wound determination of his heroine.

Although at the Merrimack, Amanda Fulks expertly disguised this slight internal fudge with a no-nonsense performance of damaged, but still defiant, moral authority (and she neatly incorporated between her emotional and intellectual cues the actual cooking of a real spaghetti supper). Meanwhile co-star Christopher McHale matched her emotional power beat for beat, with an often incendiary level of arrogant energy that was nevertheless clearly running on empty. I'm afraid I found Joe Lanza, in a framing device as Tom's son, a little too rat-a-tat in his delivery, but he still projected an appropriately confused emotional naïveté, and the physical production was likewise always apt. Scenic designer Bill Clarke brought a genuinely lived-in authenticity to Kyra's pathetic (and un-heated) flat, which lighting designer Dan Kotlowitz subtly warmed with a faint glow from above - perhaps from that metaphoric skylight, which Hare clearly intends as a metaphor for any goal beyond the self. I suppose, though, that those shafts of light should also count as a metaphor for the intelligent illumination that Charles Towers and the Merrimack Rep have brought to bear on this challenging play.

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