×

Off Broadway Review: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Sea Wall/A Life’

Two powerful monologues. Two commanding performances. But oy! Talk about depressing!

With:
Tom Sturridge, Jake Gyllenhaal.

1 hour 45 minutes

Comfy? Okay, let’s talk Death: sudden death, painful death, lingering death, accidental death, and whatever other kinds of death happen to come into the receptive minds of playwrights Simon Stephens (“Sea Wall”) and Nick Payne (“A Life”). The writing in these separate monologues — playing together on a double bill at the Public Theater — is excellent, as are the solo performances by Tom Sturridge (“Sea Wall”) and Jake Gyllenhaal (“A Life”). But this is no show to see on a first date.

Both plays take place on the same stone-cold set — two levels of solid brick walls — designed by Laura Jelinek and lighted with beautiful bleakness by Peter Kaczorowski. The rest is left to the imagination in this stark production directed by Carrie Cracknell.

“People like me,” says Alex in “Sea Wall.” “They think I’m gentle.”  In Sturridge’s devastating performance, Alex’s demeanor seems more like shell-shock. That’s perfectly understandable, given the harrowing tale he tells.

“As terrifying as anything I’ve seen,” Alex says of his first encounter with an underwater sea wall, a strikingly vivid symbol of the hidden dangers that can upend a life without warning.  “I had no idea that the bed of the sea was built like that,” he says. “I thought it was a gradual slope.” And so it is with the journey Alex envisions for his young daughter — a gentle glide through a happy life, followed by a gradual and painless descent into the darkness of death. It’s the loss of this comforting myth that is, in part, what has Alex in despair.

Stephens continually interrupts Alex’s fluid narrative with remembrances of his wife Helen and the birth of his daughter. The chunks of these two separate stories aren’t necessarily cohesive, but they’re always jolting. As is Sturridge’s performance, an aching and deeply disturbing cry of pain.

Like “Sea Wall,” Payne’s “A Life” is also about a death and told in alternating chunks of narrative. And no less than Sturridge, Gyllenhaal is out to break your heart. He’s always been a soulful actor (those eyes!), and if there’s one thing the guy in this play has, it’s soul. The narrator is named Abe and he’s got two things on his mind: the death of his father and the birth of his first child.

Abe speaks the most moving lines of this emotional evening when he defines what Payne calls the three kinds of death: the physical death when the body stops functioning, the emotional death when the body is buried, and the eternal death when our names are spoken aloud for the very last time on earth. To his credit, Gyllenhaal avoids the temptation to exploit these bruising lines. His delivery is simple and direct, but the feeling he projects is suffering incarnate.

Payne has written the only pure laugh line of the entire evening when he has Abe describe what he sees on a sonogram as “an X-ray of a pile of tiny kitten bones.” There are light moments, as well, when Abe recounts the harrowing experience of watching a birth. “It’s nothing like I’ve seen it in films,” he declares of the moment when his wife’s water breaks. If there’s a single line that Gyllenhaal does seem to chew over and thoroughly enjoy, this is it. His grin is endearing and his eyes shine with delight.

But in the context of these monologues, a word like “delight” must be taken with caution. There’s pleasure to be had at the sound of pretty prose, and it’s a joy to watch two fine actors perform in flawless character. But it might take a couple of stiff drinks to get the ashen taste of death out of your mouth.

Off Broadway Review: Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Sea Wall/A Life'

Public Theater / Newman Theater; 299 seats; $110 top. Opened Feb. 14, 2019. Reviewed Feb. 11. Running time: ONE HOUR, 45 MIN.

Production: A play by Simon Stephens and a play by Nick Payne, with one intermission.

Creative: Directed by Carrie Cracknell. Sets, Laura Jellinek; costumes, Kaye Voyce; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; sound, Fabian Obispo; original music, Stuart Earl; production stage manager, Peter Lawrence.

Cast: Tom Sturridge, Jake Gyllenhaal.

More Legit

  • HBO's 'SUCCESSION

    Brian Cox Playing LBJ in Broadway Run of 'The Great Society'

    Brian Cox will play President Lyndon Johnson in the Broadway run of “The Great Society,” playwright Robert Schenkkan’s follow-up to “All the Way.” The role of Johnson, a crude, but visionary politician who used the office of the presidency to pass landmark civil rights legislation and social programs, was originally played by Bryan Cranston in [...]

  • Paul McCartney Has Penned Score for

    Paul McCartney Has Been Secretly Writing an 'It's a Wonderful Life' Musical

    The pop superstar who once released a movie and album called “Give My Regards to Broad Street” really does have designs on Broadway, after all. It was revealed Wednesday that Paul McCartney has already written a song score for a stage musical adaptation of the 1946 Frank Capra film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The [...]

  • The Night of the Iguana review

    West End Review: 'The Night of the Iguana' With Clive Owen

    If Tennessee Williams is the poet laureate of lost souls, none of his characters as are off-grid as the restless travelers trying to make it through his little-seen 1961 play, “The Night of the Iguana.” Holed up in a remote Mexican homestay, its ragtag itinerants live hand-to-mouth, day by day, as they seek refuge from [...]

  • Moulin Rouge Broadway

    Listen: The Special Sauce in Broadway's 'Moulin Rouge!'

    There are songs in the new Broadway version of “Moulin Rouge!” that weren’t in Baz Luhrmann’s hit movie — but you probably know them anyway. They’re popular tunes by superstars like Beyoncé, Adele and Rihanna, released after the 2001 movie came out, and they’ll probably unleash a flood of memories and associations in every audience [...]

  • Greta Gerwig and Oscar Isaac

    Greta Gerwig and Oscar Isaac to Star in Anton Chekhov's 'Three Sisters' Adaptation

    Greta Gerwig and Oscar Isaac are taking on an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” for New York Theatre Workshop in Manhattan. The company announced on Tuesday that they will feature two final performances to round out the 2019 to 2020 season, including the Chekhov play. “Three Sisters” will be directed by Tony award-winning Sam [...]

  • montreal just for laughs Comedy Festival

    Montreal's Just for Laughs Festival Is the 'Coachella of Comedy'

    Every summer, Montreal becomes the epicenter of the comedy world as the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival takes over the Canadian city. Now in its 37th year, the mindboggling scale of the festival is there in the numbers: more than 1,600 artists from across the globe (speaking English, French and other languages) performing 250 shows [...]

  • The dark Manhatten skyline, seen from

    StubHub Refunds $500,000 to Customers Shut Out by New York Blackout

    Saturday’s blackout in New York had an outsized effect on the city’s nightlife, with Madison Square Garden and the entire Broadway district seeing multiple shows cancelled due to the the power outage. As a result, StubHub has refunded more than $500,000 worth of tickets for cancelled events. According to a statement from the company, the StubHub [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content