In the Public Theater’s 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 – also currently co-starring in Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw – might owe their fame to movies, but here again they stake their claim on 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 at the Public are vital enough to seem like a 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 only 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: 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 all 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.