Saved by the Actors

This is the season during which British playwright David Hare is printing his own currency on Broadway. In April the much ballyhooed The Blue Room, starring a naked Nicole Kidman, will be joined by a New York production of Amy's View, featuring theater luminary Judi Dench. Soon after that Hare himself will take the stage in Via Dolorosa, his one-man show about Israel. And let's not forget The Judas Kiss, which this past spring came to Broadway, where, along with Moises Kaufman's Gross Indecency, it stoked something of an Oscar Wilde minifestival.

But the left-wing writer is really more an Off-Broadway item, having produced a canon that criticizes the political status quo and scrutinizes human institutions such as religion and marriage. Like his countrywoman Caryl Churchill, Hare almost always explores the struggle against class conflict and other socialist causes. Racing Demon, Hare's 1990 work set among Anglican clergy, examines a crisis of faith. His most enduring play, Plenty (1978), centers around an English survivor of the French Resistance movement who realizes, two decades later, that her idealism is crumbling. More recently the playwright directed a film version of The Designated Mourner, Wallace Shawn's play about liberal guilt.

With all the emotional and political baggage, Hare's plays are not often found among the repertoires of suburban theater companies. But in celebration of the playwright's current momentum, Joseph Adler, the new artistic director of GableStage, has rather bravely chosen a Hare script as the theater's inaugural presentation. (In its last incarnation, this venue, nestled inside the Biltmore Hotel, was known as the Florida Shakespeare Theatre.) Skylight, a London hit from 1995, ran for three months on the Great White Way in 1996, a relatively long engagement for a serious play. Directed by Richard Eyre, the show received Tony nominations for leads Michael Gambon and Lia Williams.

Skylight follows the Hare tradition of biting into profound moral issues, even if (this time) it doesn't successfully digest them. The play's two protagonists are former lovers Kyra and Tom. Kyra left Tom when his wife Alice discovered the affair. The play opens three years after Alice has died from cancer. Tom, a successful restaurateur, has just tracked down Kyra and come to her garret apartment to revive the relationship. The play takes place entirely in Kyra's home, but the title refers to the ceiling of the room in which Alice died, in a house Tom had built for her to assuage his guilt about the affair. It also, perhaps, refers to the glimpse of hopefulness Tom and Kyra try to hold on to as they dig into the history of their romance, only to find that the differences between them are greater than they had imagined.

As Hare plays go, Skylight is not a major work. It doesn't have any of the eloquent architecture that marks his best plays. Anyone searching for a dramatic intention, much less a plot, will have to wait till almost halfway through the second act before anything resembling one appears. A male-midlife-crisis story, Skylight rehashes some familiar themes, but without benefit of a compelling human drama. The GableStage production, however, is quite powerful, primarily because leads Pamela Roza and Bob Rogerson unflaggingly deliver Hare's muscular dialogue as though it had a greater purpose. The actors, who create poetry where there is none, are more engaging than their characters; Kyra and Tom are nothing more than patly drawn mouthpieces for Hare's opposing points of view.

On the human level, Tom wants forgiveness for betraying his wife. At the same time, he won't acknowledge that Alice was justified in her anger. He even believes she may have died to make him feel guilty. Kyra, who left the restaurant business when she ended the affair, has steered her life in a new direction, becoming a teacher of impoverished children. Tom thinks Kyra is sublimating her own pain over the affair by choosing a career that doesn't pay well. He also thinks she's romanticizing her political beliefs. Referring to the relative poverty that is the result of her teaching job, he exclaims, "You're the only one who's desperate to get into it. Everyone else is desperate to get out."

In fact Kyra hasn't truly been able to find a balance between her ideals and the reality that challenges them. She may be helping others, Tom points out, but she has no personal life. She lives in a marginal neighborhood, in a tiny apartment that's inefficiently heated. She has cut herself off from anyone she's ever cared about.

For her part Kyra sees Tom as a person whose wealth has blinded him to the humanity around him. She's astonished, for example, when she discovers that Tom has left his driver waiting out in the cold while he takes refuge in Kyra's apartment. "For God's sake, Kyra," Tom retorts. "The man is a driver. It's what he does."

With exchanges like this, Skylight at first appears to be a drama of ideas, but it's better described as a drama of speeches. Hare is such a facile writer that he can sustain a great deal of talk onstage without actually having his characters say anything meaningful. The first half of Skylight, for instance, is overflowing with exposition. Kyra and Tom recount the history of their relationship for the benefit of the audience, but their dialogue comes off as contrived. Is it possible, we wonder, that these two have never before told each other what it was like to meet the other and fall in love?

If Tom and Kyra's affair never seems authentic, it's because the characters are barely defined beyond their usefulness as representatives of political extremes. They have no quirks, no inconsistencies in their philosophies that make them seem human. They are, rather, imperfect clones of characters who walk through other Hare texts, dividing up the universe into male/female, rich/poor, Tory/Labor hemispheres.

That's not to say that Kyra and Tom's interaction is without charm. Adler's direction of actors Roza and Rogerson is forceful and appealing. The fluid production develops like a stew at low simmer. The concoction boils over when, in mid-spat, Kyra angrily replies to Tom's entreaty that she behave differently by insisting: "No, I want you to change." Tom's long silence, which the director choreographs quite effectively, gives new meaning to dumbfounded. Rogerson in particular offers an authoritative, spellbinding performance. (Nick Bixby, who plays Tom's son, is onstage only fleetingly, but I look forward to seeing any member of this cast again.)

Moreover the show is designed with quite a bit of thoughtfulness, from Daniela Schwimmer's well-appointed costumes and Jeff Quinn's effective lighting design, to Lyle Baskin's expressionistic set that seems inspired by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari yet is somehow not out of place in contemporary London. Credit Baskin and Adler also for creating an atmosphere in which the lack of heat in Kyra's apartment spills out into the audience: At times we're nearly as uncomfortable as she is.

Less enticing, however, is the rest of the GableStage season, which suggests a much tamer Joseph Adler at work than the one who directed Skylight. The Hare drama is to be followed by the stage adaptation of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, which is nothing if not a chestnut. The season ends with John Patrick Shanley's second-rate Psychopathia Sexualis. Full Gallop, the Mark Hampton-Mary Louise Wilson study of Diana Vreeland, and the third show on the schedule, is only slightly less musty than the shows before and after it.

Adler told the Miami Herald he wanted GableStage to be "more Lincoln Center than Lincoln Road." Here's hoping he can ultimately be more provocative in his programming than either of those venues.

Written by David Hare.
Directed by Joseph Adler. With Bob Rogerson, Pamela Roza, and Nick Bixby. Through February 21. GableStage at the Biltmore, 1200 Anastasia Ave, Coral Gables; 305-445-1119.

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Robin Dougherty

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