Review by Brian Scott Lipton
In a culture where we too often talk about having our pizza delivered in under 30 minutes as “a matter of life and death,” we sometimes need to be reminded of the true meaning of these words. This exactly is what happens during “Sea Wall/A Life,” now at Broadway’s Hudson Theater for a limited engagement (after a run earlier this year at the Public Theater.) These paired 45-minutes monologues, by the acclaimed British dramatists Simon Stephens and Nick Payne, each pack a punch to the stomach with its particular story of love and loss, while also providing a surprising amount of smiles and laughter.
One could appreciate these pieces on the page simply for their evocative, heartfelt writing, but audiences are being given the gift of hearing these playlets’ being declaimed by the wonderful British actor Tom Sturridge and American film and stage great Jake Gyllenhaal. Unsurprisingly, both men are to be highly commended for their commitment to these difficult pieces, their complete immersion in their characters, and their singular ability to command Laura Jellinek’s practically bare stage. You probably won’t see a better pair of performances this season.
In “Sea Life,” Sturridge — known to Broadway audiences for his work in “Orphans” and “1984” — projects an offbeat intensity that ultimately works well for Alex, a photographer who begins by talking about the deep love that an unknown female and male have for each other. Is it he and his wife? His parents? No, it’s soon revealed that he’s speaking about his young daughter and his gruff yet lovable father-in-law, and we realize all too quickly that something horrible will happen to one or both of them before the end of the monologue.
It takes a while for Alex to tell us the whole truth, although hints are dropped here and there. In addition, director Carrie Cracknell has instructed Sturridge to stop and start his tale just a bit too often; indeed, Alex frequently starts to tell us something, but never does. And there are a perhaps a few too many digressions; do we really need to know that there is a special kind of yogurt sold in French supermarkets but not in Britain or what kind of books the characters read? But you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be profoundly moved by the denouement of the story.
In “A Life,” Payne takes a different tack. He puts his cards on the proverbial table almost immediately as Abe’s story veers between –and often internally collides with – the death of his beloved father and the birth of his daughter, events which take place years apart. Gyllenhaal, dressed in everyman mode, limns both sides of his character beautifully, making us believe totally in the young man who is so used to being a son that not only can’t he imagine life without a father as well as the now-married man who can’t imagine (or initially handle) being a father. Speaking a mile-a-minute at times, Gyllenhaal performs a balancing act that even a Cirque de Soleil performer would find impressive.
While the details of “A Life” may feel all-too-familiar to many people, it’s Payne’s pointed commentary on the three types of death every person will have to deal with – the day your body dies; the day your body is put into the ground; and the last day on earth someone speaks your name — that may make you really sit up and take notice. They are among the most heart-wrenching words I’ve ever heard in a theater, and likely to linger in your mind for days and days.
Photos: Richard Hubert Smith
Sea Wall/A Life – Hudson Theater, 141 West 44 Street, NYC run time: 1 hr 45 min thru Sept. 29, 2019