Broadway Review: “Sea Wall / A Life”

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  • David Roberts, Chief New York Critic

After a successful run at the Public’s Newman Theater earlier this year, “Sea Wall / A Life” by Simon Stephens and Nick Payne opened at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre on August 8th, 2019. Both are haunting and unforgettable plays, each performed by a brilliant actor. In Simon Stephens’ “Sea Wall,” Tom Sturridge portrays Alex, a photographer on a holiday with his wife Helen and their eight-year-old daughter Lucy at Helen’s father Arthur’s house in the eastern suburbs of Toulon in a town called Carquerraine in the south of France. In Nick Payne’s “A Life,” Jake Gyllenhaal depicts Abe, a music producer with a baby on the way and a father’s life hanging in the balance.

Neither monologue is linear which makes it difficult for the actors to convey a sense of continuity in their performances. The stories move quickly from present to past and back again. There are more than one setting in each play and the moods in each monologue shift mercilessly without warning. In this incarnation of “Sea Wall / A Life,” Tom Sturridge masters this feat with consummate skill. One can see his thinking outpacing his speaking as he tries to make sense of what befalls him and his family while his wife shops locally, his daughter plays by the sea, and his father-in-law relaxes and reads by her side.

Two major differences in the scripts determine the style and impact of the performances. Because playwright Stephens gives his characters names and more developed traits, Tom Sturridge can dig deeply into each character’s development and it is also easier for the actor to develop the non-linear exposition and plot development. And because playwright Payne juxtaposes pathos with humor, Jake Gyllenhaal can exercise his comedic flair in his monologue delivery from the first line, “When she tells me she might be pregnant I’m in the middle of roasting a chicken.” Unfortunately, it is easy to lose the sense of pathos when an actor hands over emotional control of delivery to the audience early on in a performance.

Under Carrie Cracknell’s astute direction, both actors mine the depths of the scripts given them with a consummate authenticity and rhetorical strength. Logos, pathos, and ethos collide in their telling of two tragic stories of love, family, strength, disappointment, and the vicissitudes of birth, life, and death. The characters in these two short plays and their universal conflicts resonate powerfully with audience members and the connections of the rich plot these conflicts develop to the self and the other are riveting.

Laura Jellinek’s expansive two-level scenic design and Guy Hoare’s moody and ominous lighting design enhance the actors’ interpretations of the plays. Projections have been added to the Broadway production which do nothing to add to the sense of the universality of the monologues. The work of the two actors is enough to portray the necessary pervasiveness of the themes without visual sleight-of-hand.

The themes of the two short plays are so congruent and the conflicts of the two protagonists so parallel, it often seems to be one co-authored play in two acts. Each actor delivers compelling performances that bring his character to a level of believability and authenticity rarely achieved in solo performances. It is not difficult to believe that these are the stories of the actors themselves performed for the audience as their gifts of catharsis and redemption.

SEA WALL / A LIFE

 “Sea Wall / A Life” features Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge.

The creative team for “Sea Wall / A Life” includes Laura Jellinek (scenic design), Kaye Voyce, and Christopher Peterson (costume design), Guy Hoare (lighting design), Daniel Kluger (sound design), Luke Halls (projection design), and Stuart Earl (original music).

“Sea Wall / A Life” runs at the Hudson Theatre ((141 West 44th Street) through Sunday September 29, 2019. Tickets are on sale by visiting www.seawallalife.com, www.hudsonbroadway.com, or by calling 855-801-5876. Running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.

Photo: Tom Sturridge in “Sea Wall.” Credit: Richard Hubert Smith.