This David Hare play is directed by Stephen Daldry at the John Golden Theatre on Broadway. Taking place largely on one night in the apartment of an East End schoolteacher in London, the play chronicles visits to the teacher by the son of her former lover, and then by the lover himself. Carey Mulligan (Far From the Madding Crowd, Shame, Drive) plays Kyra Hollis, who lives alone and is dedicated to her working class students in a shady part of London called East Ham. One immediately gets the impression of a well-educated, higher-class social worker, who has chosen to teach here, but why? That question will be one of the most important of several confronting the audience during the course of the play.

As Kyra is fixing herself supper and drawing a bath, she gets an unexpected visit from a youngish male named Edward Sergeant, who the last time she saw him was just a boy in a family with whom Hollis lived and worked in the restaurant business. He lets her know that the matriarch of the family, his mother Alice, has died after a bout with cancer, and that living with his father, Tom Sergeant, is now pure hell. Edward asks Kyra to consider coming back home to offer some comfort to his disintegrating father. She resists this suggestion, but we know there is more to the story than we have found out thus far.

Shortly after Edward leaves, Tom shows up, and the interaction between Tom and Kyra forms the heart of the play. Shortly, we learn that they had an affair that lasted six years, while they both lived under one roof; their guilt at betraying Alice and their love for each other form the yin and yang of a dialogue that never lacks for riveting tension. Add to that the clear opposites in their characters: Tom is a successful, older businessman; Kyra a poor, younger teacher. One has no social conscience whatsoever, the other is consumed by her calling to teach deprived students because no one else will. One drives a Mercedes—or rather has a driver who drives the Mercedes he owns—the other rides the bus and revels in the time it gives her for contemplation.

But under the principle that opposites attract, the two do genuinely have a love for each other, and the question of whether they will find a way to get together again keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. Mulligan and the irrepressible Bill Nighy, who plays Tom, have reprised the roles they had in the West End, and they are electric together. Every once in awhile at the performance I attended, the rapid-fire repartee of their more angry exchanges was too hurried; their familiarity with their lines got in the way of their performances. When a slight pause to think about what the other had just said and then respond to it would have been the most natural circumstance, too often the answer came crisply and strongly, but unnaturally, to the fore.

But this is a small matter. Usually, and especially when the discussion turns quieter and more reflective, the two go at each other like the professionals they are. Hare’s writing contributes so much, too, as it ranges through a number of levels. The play is the straightforward story of two people with a past, but is also a strong political statement of class warfare as well as the typifying of a man and a woman who struggle to relate to each other’s personalities with all their strengths and weaknesses. One will walk away thinking of scene after scene up and down the different layers of this magnificent performance.

Both Nighy and Mulligan are up for two of the seven Tonys for which the play is nominated. As I write, the Tonys are still in the future, and though neither is favored to win, they have my vote.

Drew Trotter

June 8, 2015

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