A version of this review first appeared in February 2019, when Sea Wall/A Life played at the Public Theater.
Broadway audiences are harsh, immediate critics. Behind me as I was leaving the Hudson Theatre one recent evening, a lady asked her companion, “So, who do you think did it best?”
She meant: between Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal, who won the evening's joust of the monologues? It's a fair and an inevitable question to ask leaving Sea Wall/A Life (to September 29), but one also difficult to answer (her friend hedged on an equally reasonable, “I'm not sure”).
As its two stars and title suggests, this is a production of dualities, and so the question of who does it better may depend on how you respond to either of these men and their stories.
The mostly bare-of-furniture (bar piano, and desk and lamp), brick-walled stage of the Hudson Theater—the production's Broadway home after playing at the Public Theater earlier this year—has two distinct areas, designed by Laura Jellinek. They’re horizontal: an upper level and a lower level, connected by steps.
This is also a production combining two short, echoing-of-each-other plays, Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall and Nick Payne’s A Life, 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. They both, occasionally and piercingly, look across the stage to an unseen character.
The excellent Sturridge performs first in Stephens’ play, and initially 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. Alex makes us laugh with his over-pronunciations of French place names.
Even before the truth of Alex's trauma is revealed, we see a person who has desperately tried to graft normality onto 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, something he can't reach, something he has to get to.
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.
The men are beautifully lit by Guy Hoare (three standing spotlights for Sturridge, a spot-beam for Gyllenhaal). Sturridge turns the house lights on after he has done. When Gyllenhaal first appears in Payne’s story (their third collaboration together), he strikes the theatre into darkness, lights it again from the side, can't make his mind up. Later he heads down a row of audience members, apologizing for the disturbance to one person allegedly asleep.
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.
At the Public, both stories and performances felt too self-contained and tidy for their emotional magnitude. The production felt airless. Here at the Hudson, everything feels properly sized, from the pacing and impact of Sturridge's grief to Gyllenhaal's stage-play that lifts audience spirits in the second act. That second act still feels lesser-than in some way, its stories of life and death too neat and perfectly dovetailed.
But Gyllenhaal and Sturridge are both wonderful storytellers, and thanks to their skillful performances, Sea Wall/A Life is a refreshing Broadway exercise; shorn of fuss, décor, and movement, we are invited to simply sit and listen to the telling of stories.
These stories' universality is signaled by a surprising and unnecessary closing stage projection. This seems too hokey, especially given its echo of the famous closing image of a certain 1980s movie.
So, who does it better? This critic preferred the unpredictable, unsettling jigsaw of Sturridge's performance. Others will prefer Gyllenhaal's controlled rollercoaster. But maybe it's not the fairest question when here are two actors doing something very well, very differently.