Sea Wall/A Life
By Fern Siegel
Tom Sturridge Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
intimate chamber piece now at the Hudson Theater, Sea Wall/A Life posits two men musing on
life, death and love. But mostly, it’s about death. The double bill, by authors
Simon Stephens (Sea Wall)
and Nick Payne (A Life),
embarks on a journey of memory and moment.
not a cohesive narrative, but it is a moving one.
plays are beautifully performed — Tom Sturridge in act one and Jake Gyllenhaal
in act two. Their styles are quite different; an excellent Sturridge is clearly
traumatized by his experience, while Gyllenhaaul’s sad monologue is laced with
more physicality and even the occasionally humorous note.
each delivers a hypnotic performance.
separate authors address the emotional, gut-wrenching experiences of loss. It’s
personal, singular and achingly relatable.
on a bare stage, two levels of brick walls designed by Laura Jelinkek and
subtly lit by Guy Hoare present a minimalist backdrop to multifaceted
monologues. Stripped of any visual markers, it’s the evocative stories that
production opens with Sea
Wall. Alex (Sturridge) is struggling to understand the last decade
of his life. “People like me,” says Alex, “They think I’m gentle.” He is, even
diffident at times, as he explains how he fell in love with his wife Helen and
his experiences with her father, a former British soldier.
visits to his father-in-law’s home in France, Alex first encounters a sea wall.
“As terrifying as anything I’ve seen. I had no idea that the bed of the sea was
built like that,” he says. “I thought it was a gradual slope.” Instead, the
water gradually rises until it hits a huge, unexpected 40-foot drop. It’s
terrifying — and an apt metaphor for tragedy. It often comes at you suddenly,
gradual descent into despair is part of Alex’s tale. His
story has a strong underpinning of contentment, as he realizes the extent of
his familial happiness, especially having a daughter. But his dreams are like
quicksilver, they can change in a heartbeat, transforming joy into unexpected
tells his tale suffused in pain. He’s defined by death and confounded by the
notion that a few seconds can change his life. Sea Wall muses on the concept of God, and the
cosmic quest to understand, at one’s lowest point, why terrible things happen.
A Life takes a
similar trajectory, but it’s timing is unclear. Are the events happening
simultaneously? Or do they just seem that way, given the narrative? After all,
people rarely stay linear when relating ordeals.
(Gyllenhall) has two stories to tell, the death of his father and the birth of
his child. Time is fluid; he flows through his life, noting feelings and
experiences: falling in love, dealing with his father, from teenager to grown
man. Abe is less contemplative; he’s practical, particularly as he relates the
details of his wife’s pregnancy and the crazy moments first-time parents
the searing reality of loss is woven into his story, and the emotional apex
comes when he explains the three kinds of death: physical, when the body ceases
functioning, emotional, during burial, and eternal, when our names are spoken
for the last time. It’s a chilling moment.
plays offer millennial men at crucial points in their lives. They grapple with
similar themes of death and the excruciating pain it brings. Sea Wall/A Life is not for
the faint of heart. Simply directed by Carrie Cracknell, it is a deeply felt
exploration of our most vulnerable state and the brutal line of demarcation
between happiness and despair.
Sea Wall/A Life, Hudson Theater, 141 W. 44 St., through Sept. 29.
time: 1 hour 45 minutes, with intermission