Loss, of both the unimaginable and sadly routine varieties, fuels the pair of one-act plays being given their New York premieres at the Public Theater. Featuring Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge, Sea Wall/A Life is composed of thematically linked monologues delivered by young men relating their experiences coping with personal tragedies. It’s a subject to which all of us can sadly relate, making the evening as painfully harrowing as it is engrossing.
Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall features Sturridge (seen on Broadway in 1984 and Orphans) as Alex, whose haunted demeanor and habit of stopping mid-sentence indicates his tortured emotional state. At the beginning of his story, he’s blissfully in love with his wife and joyful about the impending birth of his daughter. As the years go by, Alex is also fortunate in having a father-in-law, a retired British soldier, he thoroughly likes. So he’s eager to take up the invitation for him and his wife and daughter, now 8 years old, to join the older man on a French seaside holiday.
The vacation is fun at first, with Alex awkwardly attempting diving for the first time (“I was at that moment the mathematical direct polar opposite of Daniel Craig,” he admits, endearingly) and being shown a sea wall that precipitously drops hundreds of feet. “I had no idea that the bed of the sea was built like that,” he tells us. “I thought it was a gradual slope.”
The sea wall is also, as you may have guessed by now, a metaphor for the way that life can suddenly drop beneath our feet. A single shattering event occurs that has clearly reduced this once ebullient young man to the tortured soul we see before us. The playwright (Heisenberg, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) thankfully refrains from embellishing the simple tale with florid rhetorical touches. At one point, Alex informs us that he’s about to tell us “the cruelest thing I ever did to anybody else.” That he stops himself before relating it, leaving the rest to our imagination, proves far more powerful than anything he could have said. Sturridge delivers the brief piece affectingly, conveying both the boyish enthusiasm of a soon-to-be father and the emotional desolation of a broken man.
Gyllenhaal adopts a more relaxed, conversational style, while also fully deploying his movie-star charisma in A Life, written by Nick Payne (in whose plays If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet and Constellations he also appeared). He plays Abe, who relates two stories simultaneously: one about his father succumbing to heart disease, the other about his trepidation at becoming the father of a baby girl. Nothing very unusual occurs in the course of these events, but the story is filled with poignant moments, including Abe describing his discomfort upon helping his ailing father go the bathroom, and his frustration on hearing that the doctors have essentially stopped treatment. When Abe asks if his father is dying, a doctor tells him, “We try to operate within a culture of optimism.” Never has such a banal phrase sounded so chilling.
The piece deals with more ordinary circumstances than its predecessor on the bill, which somehow makes it all the more affecting. The contrast between the most joyous and the most tragic events in the narrator’s life is made movingly clear, especially when he ponders the very different ways in which they occurred. “I don’t understand why we prepare so fucking wonderfully and elaborately for birth and yet so appallingly and haphazardly for death,” he complains.
The plays are subtly linked in terms of language as well as subject matter. While Alex almost told us about “the cruelest thing I ever did to anybody else,” Abe relates his reaction to his wife attempting to comfort him by reminding him that his father loved him. “I think it might be the kindest thing I’ve ever heard,” he says.
Staged in appropriately minimalist and powerful fashion by Carrie Cracknell on a mostly bare stage, the superbly acted double-bill provides a vital reminder that life is all too fleeting.
Venue: The Public Theater, New York
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tom Sturridge
Playwrights: Simon Stephens, Nick Payne
Director: Carrie Cracknell
Set designer: Laura Jellinek
Costume designer: Kaye Voyce
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Music: Fabian Earl
Sound designer: Fabian Obispo
Presented by The Public Theater