The wrenching (and slyly funny) Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge double-bill of one-act plays, Sea Wall/A Life, has lost none of its intimate power in the move from Off Broadway to Broadway’s Hudson Theater, where it opens tonight.
Aside from a late-in-the-show visual flourish involving the projection of a many-windowed building facade, the production has few noticeable alterations. That projection, though, is a nice touch, suggesting that the very personal pain experienced by each of these characters (who share the stage only once, fleetingly, and with no interaction) could be happening behind each and every pane of glass.
When I reviewed the production in February during its Public Theatre engagement, I was struck by the emotional impact of the performances, the writing and Carrie Cracknell’s direction. All of that stands, but seeing it again, this time in the larger Broadway venue, I noticed the many moments of humor that Gyllenhaal and Sturridge pull off so efficiently. Gyllenhaal, in particular, seems to have loosened up a bit in his role, superbly providing quicksilver shifts in tone and mood. Sturridge, in the more unrelenting Sea Wall, couldn’t get any better than he was Off Broadway. Assuming the show’s producers invite Tony voters to this strictly limited nine-week engagement, either actor could stake an early claim on next year’s trophy nominations.
Sea Wall/A Life is written, respectively, by Simon Stephens and Nick Payne. The Broadway creative team is Laura Jellinek (scenic design), Kaye Voyce, Christopher Peterson (costume design), Guy Hoare (lighting design), Daniel Kluger (sound design) and Stuart Earl (original music).
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Here’s my original review from Feb. 14, with only minor edits to accommodate updated information:
In the double bill Sea Wall/A Life, Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal deliver scorching performances that can stand alongside anything on the New York stage so far this season. The pair might owe their fame to movies, but here they stake their claim to the stage.
None of which will come as a surprise to anyone who saw Gyllenhaal in his previous collaboration with playwright Nick Payne (Constellations, 2015), nor those who saw Sturridge in 2017’s unsettling 1984. But these performances of Sea Wall/A Life are vital enough to seem like the big wave we didn’t see coming.
Directed by Carrie Cracknell with an unfailing feel for detail – a shuffle of papers here, a switch of a light there – the production is divided into halves: Sturridge in Sea Wall first, followed by Gyllenhaal in A Life, monologues connected by theme and mood.
In Sea Wall, Sturridge reunites with Punk Rock playwright Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), just as Gyllenhaal re-teams with his Constellations author.
Sturridge is already on the bricked platform stage as the audience takes its seats, sitting atop a tall wall, drinking what might be a beer, flipping through what might be old photos. Soon he’ll tell us that people often notice a big, see-through hole in his torso. He doesn’t seem to be speaking metaphorically, though we sense a spiritual void the minute he starts speaking.
His character is Alex, a congenial British twentysomething who recounts his great and undying loves for his wife, his young daughter, and his outwardly tough guy father-in-law. He mentions a rocky start in his adulthood, but that seems to have long been smoothed over by a no-limits love for his young family. He and his wife even decide early on that they want no other children for fear it would draw focus from their one perfect little girl.
If we haven’t sensed doom by now, that last detail does the trick. As Alex begins a long story of a family beachside vacation in the South of France, the dread builds. We need only wonder how the devastation will arrive, and how a parent could survive such random, life-shattering cruelty.
The second play is A Life, and has Gyllenhaal’s Abe offering two examples of the title: He tells us of his father and his daughter. More specifically, he recounts his father’s death and his daughter’s birth, jumping between stories so quickly and seamlessly that they often seem to be occurring on the very same night. They’re not.
Like Kenneth Lonergan’s heartrending The Waverly Gallery, A Life gives the decline of an aging parent the significance it demands, its commonplace nature of no comfort. “I love my dad,” Gyllenhaal’s Abe says, then, as if he’s the first to ever utter the words, “My dad is dead.”
Abe’s accounting of his daughter’s birth is no less vivid. Our earlier encounter with the grieving dad of Sea Wall has prepared us for anything, so there’s real terror in A Life‘s minute-by-minute of an anything-could-go-wrong scenario. Birth and death, we’re shown, are equally precious. They are, simply, life.
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