From the nanno-second that Alex (Tom Sturridge) begins to speak in Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall at the Public Theater, we know it is going to be a bad day at Black Rock. Or Mudville. Or wherever it is this story-teller is located as he talks to us. Ditto for Abe (Jake Gyllenhaal) in A Life by Nick Payne. In the latter there are a few laughs well-played by Gyllenhaal, but on the whole, it is a gloomy evening.
These two characters are navel gazing. Alex is reliving how life rose up and flipped on its back in a moment. What he was counting on is no longer on the table and he is having to stitch life together with the flimsiest of threads. I’m holding my entire head together. The skin and the shell of me. I’m falling absolutely inside myself. But you can see that.
In many ways this is a brave piece that compels us to watch, the way that videos go viral, or crowds gather to watch a fire. Except here the actual event is the man himself, reporting in from the front where nothing good happened. He is a survivor and that truth will not let him have one moment of peace. How do bad things happen to good people? Who planned this mess? Where is God in the mix? Is there a God, and if so, why doesn’t s/he make an appearance and set things right?
The second man, Abe, has been swept up in an emotional vortex that involves being a son and becoming a father. He is equipped for neither and makes no effort to convince us otherwise. Abe is not so much a participant in life as he is a witness. People come and go around him, and he does his best to pitch in and be a good sport, but it is only when he is more or less left to his own devices that the elements begin to click together in his extreme favor. As the elements kick in, he is overwhelmed by the serendipity of life. He cannot help but consider how he is part of a majestic rhythm. No matter what he does there are certain inescapable truths like memory, and a child’s gaze, and fatherhood that comes without training wheels ...for some reason I start thinking about that moment, some time in the future, when our names are said, spoken aloud, for the very last time…And I’m thinking to myself and so fuck it I decide to say it aloud: Mary.
Each of these might be compelling as short stories. Might be. I am not certain I would get through them, however, because there is not enough meat on these bones to keep me interested. The same points are made over and over ad infinitum. This evening could easily be titled Bemoaned and Befuddled. Sea Wall begins to dig deeper just as the monologue wraps up. Prior to that it is a man picking at the scab of a devastating event. We all do that, to be sure. But making a piece of theatre out of it is a whole ‘nother thing. A Life never achieves lift-off. One thing happens, and another. Then a bunch of things happen at the same time – as is often the way – and then there is a moment that is sublime. Not a strong or even intriguing piece of theatre.
I have never seen Tom Sturridge’s work that I recall, and I was left wondering if there was anything he could have done as a performer to improve his tale. I don’t know. Jake Gyllenhaal is charming and sincere and believable. Not a stretch there. Both characters are supremely self-effacing, which may have been due to the guidance of their director Carrie Cracknell. Would that there had been other colors added to this palette. Life has plenty to offer up.
As it is, the evening is like a bowl of oatmeal that initially seemed like a good idea but was left out on the counter just long enough to lose its flavor not to mention its raison d'être.
(Photos by Joan Marcus)
"Despite a shapeless green cardigan and black sweatpants, Mr. Gyllenhaal is unconvincing as a zhlub. Still, he is priceless with pressured dialogue. From a scenario that builds panic artificially, he mines surprisingly genuine humor, and eventually pathos, by focusing on Abe's avoidance rather than expression of pain. Unable to communicate real feelings directly - he keeps telling us what he should have said as if that counted - he's like a mouse in a maze of emotions, banging into walls and instantly changing course."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"Nick Payne and Simon Stephens do their respective one-act monologues no favors by putting them together on a double bill. Even the starry solo turns of Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge can’t relieve the monotony of seeing Stephens’ Sea Wall and Payne’s A Life back to back with an intermission."
Robert Hofler for The Wrap
"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."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"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."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety