Celebrity ‘Sea Wall/A Life’ Review: Quiet Tragicomedies of Love and Loss

Celebrity ‘Sea Wall/A Life’ Review: Quiet Tragicomedies of Love and Loss

Celebrity Critic’s PickIn a tender pair of monologues, Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal portray young fathers shaken out of complacency. ImageJake Gy

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Celebrity Critic’s PickIn a tender pair of monologues, Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal portray young fathers shaken out of complacency. ImageJake Gyllenhaal in “A Life,” by Nick Payne, at the Hudson Theater.CreditCreditSara Krulwich/The New York TimesAug. 8, 2019Sea Wall / A LifeNYT Critic’s PickBroadway, Drama, Play, Solo Performance1 hr. and 45 min.Closing Date: Sept. 29, 2019Hudson Theater, 145 West 44th St.855-801-5876More InformationIf it wasn’t the absolute worst time someone’s electronic device could have gone off during “Sea Wall,” Simon Stephens’s exquisite one-act monologue that’s part of a Broadway double bill, it still might well have sabotaged the show.The British actor Tom Sturridge had held us entranced all the way to the pin-drop quiet of the play’s delicate final seconds when a robotic voice intruded from the orchestra of the Hudson Theater to deliver — what was it, an Amber Alert?A less masterful performer, or one of stormier temperament, might have let the audience’s reflexive anger overwhelm the moment. Without breaking character, Mr. Sturridge chose a smarter, more graceful course.“It’s O.K.,” he said gently, definitely to us but maybe also partly to himself, and the words were a balm: soothing the room and restoring the spell he’d cast, almost as soon as it had been shattered. He paused a long while, then resumed the play’s last little wordless bit, a coda now. Witnessing such a coup of craft and professionalism is part of the reason we go to live theater, where the best actors are sharply attuned to whatever is happening in the room. And that’s very much the case with “Sea Wall/A Life,” the program of twinned monologues that opened on Thursday night. Its second half, Nick Payne’s “A Life,” is performed by Jake Gyllenhaal.Mr. Sturridge and Mr. Gyllenhaal, co-stars in Netflix’s recent “Velvet Buzzsaw,” are veterans of these playwrights’ work. Mr. Sturridge made his professional debut in Mr. Stephens’s “Punk Rock” in London, while Mr. Gyllenhaal has done Mr. Payne’s plays Off Broadway (“If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet”) and on (“Constellations”).Directed by Carrie Cracknell, “Sea Wall/A Life” — a hit downtown early this year, at the Public Theater — is the most stripped-down storytelling on Broadway right now. The quiet spectacle these plays offer is in the acting of tragicomedies of love and loss, young men’s stories about fatherhood and family, and about the hole that grief can blast right through a person’s center.Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge on masculinity and monologuesAs the audience settles in, before the performance proper begins, Mr. Sturridge does look a bit broody up there. Perched with a pint glass, he sits at the top of some stairs on Laura Jellinek’s spare, bi-level red brick set. He is Alex, a photographer, somewhat disheveled in his baggy track pants. (Costumes are by Kaye Voyce and Christopher Peterson.)But any cloudiness of mood evaporates the instant Alex steps into the buttery light (by Guy Hoare) and starts his story. A sweet young London dad, he relishes the sun-kissed life that he and his wife, Helen, share with their small daughter, Lucy.ImageTom Sturridge in “Sea Wall,” by Simon Stephens.CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times“She had us, both of us, absolutely round her finger,” he begins, and from that opening sentence Mr. Sturridge has us as well, Alex’s warm, amused affection for the people he loves making us love them, too. That includes Helen’s gruff, ex-military father, Arthur, the kind of man whose acceptance the tenderhearted Alex feels lucky to win. Their visits to him at his home in the south of France — Alex exulting, comically, in the foreignness of the place names — become cozy beachside idylls for the tight-knit bunch.But just as the ocean floor drops abruptly by hundreds of feet at a sea wall, a fact that he learns from his father-in-law, the footing of Alex’s life is more precarious than he realizes. When it slips away, it is devastating — so if you go to see this play, remember to pack tissues.“Sea Wall” has fine, strong, elegant bones, and Mr. Sturridge’s captivating performance has deepened beautifully since the Public run. In his hands, Alex is a man with his rib cage cracked open, everything inside on vulnerable display.After intermission, “A Life” takes the opposite tack, leaning hard on the comedy — harder than it did Off Broadway — from the instant Mr. Gyllenhaal makes his entrance as the flustered, hapless Abe. Like Alex, he also has a tale of a daughter to tell.What “A Life” intends is to blend mirth with grief as Abe relates not only the largely comic story of his child’s coming into the world but also the more somber story of his father’s exit from it. This loss haunts Abe, in some ways paralyzes him, but the spectators at the performance I saw seemed uninterested in taking it seriously. It is not Mr. Gyllenhaal’s fault that there was laughter at moments that are meant to be painful.ImageMr. Gyllenhaal, left, and Mr. Sturridge on Laura Jellinek’s spare two-level set.CreditSara Krulwich/The New York TimesThe play’s opening primes the crowd for pure comedy, a problem compounded by the baggage of celebrity. A star enters the room and, zing, the air is electric with anticipation. Eager to adore, more easily caught up in their proximity to fame than in the story before them, fans laugh too easily, too loudly, too often. And if you’re Mr. Gyllenhaal, that can really drown out the nuances of your monologue.He does know how to work a crowd, though. The most talked-about part of “Sea Wall/A Life” is the slapstick interlude where Mr. Gyllenhaal — dressed less schlumpily than at the Public, now sans cardigan — gamely hops off the stage and into the audience, dashing up one aisle and down the next, squeezing into one of the front rows and then another.But “A Life” is an erratic play, less structurally sound than “Sea Wall,” and performing much of it at a frantic pace doesn’t help to clarify its sudden shifts. One instant Abe is talking about his pregnant wife, the next about his dying father. There’s sometimes not much in the way of tonal cue — in lighting, sound or affect — so it can take the audience a while to catch on.To Abe, all of this is intertwined: birth and death, becoming a father and being a son. There’s a reason that he’s telling these stories together, and that they blend into each other.“I don’t understand why we prepare so … wonderfully and elaborately for birth,” he says, using a modifier we can’t print here, “and yet so appallingly and haphazardly for death.”This production doesn’t slow down long enough to provide the necessary undergirding for “A Life” to pack the emotional punch it’s aiming for. But Mr. Gyllenhaal’s fans most likely will not mind. If, overall, they appeared to be missing the point of the play, they also looked to be having fun.Sea Wall/A LifeTickets Through Sept. 29, 2019 at the Hudson Theater, Manhattan; 855-801-5876, seawallalife.com. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.
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