Previously staged at the Public Theater, “Sea Wall/A Life” has reached Broadway, which means that more theatergoers are able to savor the separate but thematically connected monologues by impressive actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge.
“Sea Wall,” constituting the first act, has been written by Simon Stephens, and “A Life” has been written by Nick Payne. Both are directed by Carrie Cracknell. They are presented on an almost empty stage, save for a movable ladder, an elevated walkway, a desk and chair, and a light switch, all against the background of a brick wall. (The set design is by Laura Jellinek.) At the end there is a clever dramatic projection design by Luke Halls of an apartment building with a pullback effect that progressively shows more and more floors and windows, suggesting that what we have just witnessed in the monologues might be applied to the world at large.
There is indeed universality in the perspectives offered about life, loss and dealing with both joy and unexpected tragedy. In “Sea Wall,” Sturridge as Alex tells us about his life and experiences with utter charm. He is a master at pausing to reflect and indicate mulling over what he wants to say. He has a natural, easygoing style, increasing the volume as occasionally he moves about the stage, indicating tension as his story builds.
Alex arrives at time when, he, his wife and eight-year-old daughter have been visiting with his father-in-law in the south of France. Having gone out for a swim, Alex tells how he looked back to see the unbelievable sight of his daughter taking a sudden fall. The account that he gives, harrowingly written and performed with eerie emotion, is chilling and poignant. I happened to see the play soon after the El Paso and Dayton massacres in which lives were suddenly ended and families upended. Although Alex’s situation is entirely different, the element of chance that can change things forever is similar.
Jake Gyllenhaal as Abe in “A Life” shows a more outgoing and jaunty personality. However, his monologue also deals with loss but in the context of a new beginning of life. Abe deeply loves his father, who is dying, and his emotions are raw as he wants to show love for his dad and expresses deep pain at what will be lost.
But on the bright side, his wife is about to give birth and there is much humor in the description of his frantically trying to do what is expected of him in his role of helping his wife through the experience. Background about their romance and marriage is worked into the narrative, and Gyllenhaal demonstrates his acting expertise in the way he meshes the death of his father and the birth of a baby in Abe’s description of his life at that crucial time. The point is made: One life ends, another begins.
The author and the masterly interpretations by Sturridge and Gyllenhaal have managed to put a philosophical emphasis on the meaning of it all in the larger context. The effect is cemented by that projection finale. When Gyllenhaal and Sturridge appear together for their richly deserved curtain call, one is made freshly aware of the implicit connection of the different individual experiences revealed in each play. Above all, “Sea Wall/A Life” offers the opportunity to see two fine actors giving memorable performances. At the Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street. Phone: 855-801-5876. Reviewed August 9, 2019.