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Sea Wall/A Life

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 14, 2019

Tom Sturridge
Photo by Joan Marcus

"If this can happen, anything can happen," warns Alex, a man striving to stay afloat in the wake of a tragic and sudden loss he can hardly begin to grasp, in the first of the pair of monologs that make up the double bill jointly titled Sea Wall/A Life, opening tonight at the Public Theater and featuring richly-mined and heart-rending solo performances by Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal.

The two works, running about 45 minutes each, share similar themes but were created by different playwrights a decade apart and wend along different paths, in content, style, and delivery. Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) scripted Sea Wall in 2008; Nick Payne (Constellations) wrote A Life for this production. For a succinct synopsis of their congruity, turn to The Book of Common Prayer: In the midst of life, we are in death.

Each of the plays is about a man in deep bereavement. Grief being pretty much a universal experience, the fundamental stories each of them brings to the fore are familiar if nonetheless wrenching to hear: the loss of a child, the loss of a parent. Yet it is also true that we all have to navigate through sorrow in our own way, so that what fascinates here is how each actor approaches his performance.

Sturridge, as Alex, is all introspective, save for his constantly busy and expressive hands as he relocates between the lower stage and an upper platform while picking at the still forming scabs over what happened on that terrible day when he and his family were on vacation along the French Mediterranean. He is both forthcoming and frozen into anguished inarticulateness, with unfinished thoughts, equal parts blame and guilt, that are left dangling in silence, at one point for a full minute as he anxiously paces. It feels both harrowing and intrusive to watch this man who describes himself as someone who will burst into tears over an episode of ER, now locked in a place where, he says, "I have a complete and total inability to cry."

Jake Gyllenhaal
Photo by Joan Marcus

Sea Wall is decidedly the stronger of the plays, a devastating piece of writing that takes its central character into the void, and us along with him. It is spare and unfussy as the near-empty stage on which it appears. A Life, on the other hand, is far more garrulous, both in tone and in the performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. He is the yang to Sturridge's yin, an effusive extravert whose story flips the pronouncement from The Book of Common Prayer to its opposite: In the midst of death, we are in life.

Gyllenhaal's character, Abe, has much to say, and, unlike Sturridge's Alex, he welcomes an audience. His story is full of adjectives and flourishes as he recounts a mix of heartbreak and joy that has engulfed his life seemingly simultaneously. In some ways, the role is more difficult to pull off. There are multiple voices here as Abe tries to reproduce remembered conversations. Yet Gyllenhaal never attempts to change Abe's speech patterns to match the various characters the way a professional storyteller might. This is Abe's story told in his voice alone. It is up to us to follow along as he leaps from one to another and from mood to mood.

The juxtaposition of the two plays about the intransigent but somehow always surprising inevitability of creation and perishability makes for a theatrically galvanizing experience. Along with kudos to Sturridge and Gyllenhaal, much praise goes to director Carrie Cracknell, who has done outstanding work in revealing both the divergences and the intersections of these two superlatively performed solo works.

Sea Wall/A Life
Through March 31
Newman Theater at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: