Wednesday, August 28, 2019

61 (2019-2020): Review: SEA WALL/A LIFE (seen August 27, 2019)

“Fathers, Daughters, Sons”


I was out of the country when this show opened in early August and only caught up with it last night. It originally played at Off Broadway’s Public Theater in the spring, where I reviewed it on March 3, and is now on Broadway at the Hudson Theatre. Since this is, to all intents and purposes, the same production, I’ve reprinted that review below, with one or two minor emendations and bracketed interpolations.  

The programs two one-acts, each for a solo performer—Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal—standing on a rather bleak, mostly empty stage, seem even weaker than I remembered. Whatever emotional and literary values they had in the Public’s far more intimate Newman Theater lose much of their impact at the Hudson, dissipating each play’s already slim, narrative.

The biggest difference from the Off-Broadway version appears to be the increase in both the level of intensity and the amount of comedy Gyllenhaal brings his performance. I don’t deny, though, that the latter registered more with the audience at large than with me or my companion. It almost seemed as if, following the tragic circumstances recounted in Sturridge’s opening play, the audience was willing itself to laugh at every hint of lightness in Gyllenhaal’s amiable presence, even greeting his first appearance with fandom’s familiar whoops of appreciative recognition.

I won’t say more here other than to acknowledge (and I’m aware I’m a bit of an outlier) that the plays made an even milder impression on me than in March and that the reason to see them remains the excellent work of the stars. 
Jake Gyllenhaal, Tom Sturridge. All photos: Richard Hubert Smith.
Tom Sturridge (Orphans1984) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Constellations), both exciting leading men of stage and screen, bring audiences at the Public Theater to their feet at the end of Sea Wall/A Life, a bill of back-to-back monologues.

I, however, remained seated. This wasn’t because the excellent actors give anything less than what their previous work would have led one to expect. Instead, it was because—with due respect to these stars’ vibrant presences—I could as easily have listened to their material on an audiobook as seen it on a stage.

Simon Stephens’s (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) “Sea Wall” (written in 2008) and Nick Payne’s (If There Is, I Haven't Found It Yet) “A Life,” each around 45-minutes long (they’re separated by a 15-minute intermission), are performed on the same bare, brick-walled set, designed by Laura Jellinek and lit by Peter Kaczorowski [Guy Hoare on Broadway]. A scarcely used upper level runs across the stage proper, to which it’s connected by a set of stairs, also underused. A piano at right center is used (for a mournful rendition of “Imagine”) only at the end of “A Life.”

The British Sturridge and the American Gyllenhaal, directed by Carrie Cracknell, play ordinary, happily married men, dressed by Kaye Voyce [joined on Broadway, for some reason, by Christopher Peterson] in basic everyday wear. They tell their stories to no one in particular as they try to make sense of events both recent and in the past. Only a small number of other characters figure in their narratives.
Tom Sturridge.
Both plays examine fatherhood, marriage, childbirth, and the care of daughters, both move back and forth in time, both include traumatic events, and both ask existential questions about the meaning of life. They capture moods and incidents in natural-sounding, yet poetically suggestive prose, but, while they explore strong feelings, they possess little dramatic tension.

The “f-word” gets plenty of mileage, especially in “A Life,” which also—despite the concern it and its partner share with death—manages to squeeze a few laughs out of its generally serious substance. About the only chuckle raised by “Sea Wall” comes from Alex’s pride in pronouncing Carquerraine, the name of a French town.
Tom Sturridge.
In “Sea Wall,” Sturridge plays Alex, a British photographer trying to maintain his composure in the wake of a recent tragedy that he gradually reveals. Much of it concerns his father-in-law, an ex-military man and retired math teacher who lives in a village in the south of France. There, Alex, his wife, Helen, and their little girl, Lucy, the apple of her grandpa’s eye, vacation annually, swimming in the Mediterranean.

As he builds toward the climax of his tale, Alex describes his conversations with his father-in-law about the existence of God, a subject about which they politely disagree and that remains a persistent thread to which Alex keeps returning. But, regardless of the grief that would seem the trigger for his story, he continues weaving into it trivia on various subjects, from scuba diving to photography to detective fiction.
Tom Sturridge.
He pays considerable attention to the circumstances of Lucy’s birth, but also describes moments incidental to her getting older and the love she generates. All this is a buildup to the heart-rending event that concludes Alex’s sometimes elegiac rambling and the expression of his hope that we’ll one day understand why such things happen. Nonetheless, for all its assumed depth, “Sea Wall” really doesn’t dive very deeply at all.

In “A Life,” Gyllenhaal is Abe, and his story also devotes much time to the physical circumstances of his child’s birth, as well as to its aftermath. But it also keeps shifting to his own beloved father and the fatal heart disease that struck him when Abe was a teen.
Jake Gyllenhaal.
Whereas Sturridge’s Alex has a modicum of physical freedom, the stage is darkened for Abe’s narrative, isolating him in a spotlight, like a stand-up comic. Perhaps because the director grew bored of him standing in one spot for so long, she has him rush through the audience at one point, with his cell phone flashlight on, before returning to the stage.

Payne’s script is technically more complex than Stephens’s since it is essentially two stories running on parallel tracks. One is the preparation for Abe’s baby’s birth, the birth itself, and its postnatal care. The second concerns Abe’s father’s ailment, death, and—with a message about how much we prepare for birth and how little for death—what came after. Tying the tracks together is Abe’s preoccupation with his lack of confidence in his own fatherhood, and the experience that shows him otherwise.
Jake Gyllenhaal.
The play could as easily have been called, “A Life; A Death”; it once was called “The Art of Dying.” Gyllenhaal is required to make rapid shifts in dialogue to suggest different speakers as well as overlapping chronicles. The nature of the material, however, prevents him from showboating and, all things considered, he renders a rather restrained, yet always truthful, almost conversational performance.

Fans of Sturridge and Gyllenhaal will appreciate the chance to see these stars in the flesh, with eyes trained on only them. But I would have preferred to have had the distraction of, at the least, dramatic action and other actors for these fine actors to play off.

Hudson Theatre
141 W. 44th St., NYC
Through September 29