As its two stars—Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge—and title suggests, Sea Wall / A Life is a production of dualities. The bare, brick-walled stage of the Newman Theater at the Public Theater has two distinct areas, designed by Laura Jellinek. They’re horizontal: an upper level and a lower level, connected by steps.
There are two short plays, Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall and Nick Payne’s A Life, making one evening, directed by Carrie Cracknell. These are two men, specifically fathers of young children, with two monologues very overtly about the two most fundamental dualities: life and death. The intimate staging, facing us, is their own kind of purgatory, their confessional, their (another duality) silent agonizing made verbal.
The excellent Sturridge performs first in Stephens’ play, and first seems a slightly suspicious, scruffy character called Alex who is 31, and who—in all of Sturridge’s diffidence and gawkiness—seems not immediately trustful. But then the story of his life unfolds in drily witty snippets about his partner Helen, their 8-year-old daughter Lucy, and Helen’s father, an ex-soldier with a house in the South of France.
Of Helen, he tells us, “We have little routines and stuff like about the dishwasher or the shopping or cooking because I really like to cook for her but compared to her I’m shit at it. So when she cooks it’s properly a treat. We have all these routines but it’s like we fucking love them. Rather than finding them, what? Restricting?”
Even before the truth of his trauma is revealed, we see a person who has desperately tried to graft normality on to a life blighted by the worst tragedy (which will go unrevealed here); Alex apologizes to us for having what he sees as an all-too visible hole in him where his stomach should be.
The visceral moment of that tragedy unfolding is beautifully written by Stephens, who as a playwright connects with the audience through his use of detail upon detail; for example, Sturridge’s character realizing, from a distance, that something awful has happened.
Then, finally, reunited with his loved one, the scale and nature of the tragedy suddenly is starkly played out in the moment. The scruffy, odd man we met at the beginning we now realize is simply a broken man with a painted smile, and just carrying on.
Sturridge does go the upper level of the stage, and seems lost and smaller there, while Gyllenhaal, so wonderful on stage in Sunday In The Park With George and a riot in Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw alongside Sturridge, stays on the lower level, though does approach the piano at one point to play.
Both men like playing with the lighting that illuminates them. That is meaningful in itself, both in how they are in control of how we see them and hear their stories. When Gyllenhaal first appears in Payne’s story (their third collaboration together), he strikes the theatre into darkness, and later heads down a row of audience members.
His character Abe looks more normally dressed than the squirrelly Sturridge. Abe, like Alex, wants to be liked. He tells us about his dad appearing in his boxer shorts when he was a teenager, claiming his arms were tingling; the beginning of a terrible downward spiral in his health.
Alongside that, throwing the performance’s big themes into sharper focus, Abe’s partner is having a baby. Payne writes both as overlapping, sometimes interrupting one another.
But if Stephens’ story was specific and detailed enough to pierce, there is something more gloopy and generalized about A Life, for all the scattered references to much-needed bags of Skittles and mistakenly used bottles of lavender oil. The play’s parallel lines of life and death feel too neatly structured and experienced, and detract from their intended shattering impact.
Both stories and performances feel very self-contained; that’s inevitable given their length and scope, of course. But then, what are they and what are we expected to take from them? Gyllenhaal and Sturridge are star names and able actors, so audiences will come, but will they be electrified?
These are more radio short stories, standing monlogues, than anything more or bigger. And so they suffer slightly, because here we are in a theater watching the brilliant Gyllenhaal and Sturridge delivering respectable but somehow too-restrained one-man shows. The scale of their talents, the scale of what both plays aspire to, both fall oddly short.
The plays are about intense things, horrible and exhilarating human mess, and yet they feel rigorously unmessy. They are not, like many short stories of their lengths, tales of the unexpected. There are no twists. The characters do not surprise us. To reference another duality, it’s odd that two short plays about such big themes should end up feeling small.
Sea Wall /A Life is at the Public Theater, until March 31