I don’t know in whose brain the idea originally germinated, but it was, I think, inevitable. Sea Wall by Simon Stephens and A Life by Nick Payne, two British playwrights by the by, were destined, in America, to become Sea Wall/A Life; a singular evening at the theater. And after germinating in a sold out run at The Public Theater, it has now moved to Broadway's Hudson Theatre. Because its movie star cast of Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge didn’t bargain for the connection with and reaction from their audiences that they got from the two monologues. In an article in the Playbill given out at the Hudson Theatre, Gyllenhaal is quoted as saying “Both of us had no idea what we would hear from people, how it would hit people and what it would remind them of and that’s [become] the best part. That’s why we’re bringing this to Broadway. We just have to bring this to a couple more people.”
What is really refreshing about these two monologues and why they work so well together is that, for a change, they’re men talking about their wives, their children and their parents with abundant love. Yes, there’s confusion, there’s pain and loss. But there’s also respect, joy and reverence.
Both monologues are played on a bare stage, breaking the fourth wall, the characters talking directly to us, the audience. We are directly engaged. Within the first few minutes of Sea Wall, Alex (Tom Sturridge) is asking us the name of the hospital clothing that nurses and doctors wear when he can’t remember the name. A few brave souls call out from the audience “Scrubs!” He grins. “Yeah, scrubs.” That’s it. We’re in it now. We’re co-conspirators in the story. With no visuals to get in our way, we have only the words of the playwrights, and the voices and bodies of the actors to fire our imagination. And fired up they become.
Sea Wall, which is first on the bill, is a bit of an enigma in the beginning. Alex is telling us a story that we seem to have come into the middle of, and that feels like we’re supposed to know the background to. And Alex is a little lost as a storyteller. He keeps getting caught up in memory and going off on tangents and not finishing his initial thoughts. But you can see it in his body and his eyes. It’s so real to him as he’s telling it, you can’t help but forgive him the herky jerky narrative. And you can’t help but be charmed by him too.
A Life is not the first time Jake Gyllenhaal has appeared in a work by Nick Payne, having made his Off-Broadway debut in the playwright’s If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet and debuted on Broadway in his Constellations. Payne and Gyllenhaal collaborated on revisions to the character of Abe, who needed to be more American for this run. And Gyllenhaal’s Abe is definitely American. I’d say he’s a New Yorker although it’s not stated explicitly. But the number of f*** bombs he drops, and the cabs he takes and his general demeanor scream New York. What can I say, it takes one to know one. And there’s the New York City sense of humor that is heavily laced with self-deprecation and irony that is Abe’s go-to. Especially when men are covering up that they’re feeling something. Anything.
And like Alex in Sea Wall, Abe in A Life is definitely breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to us. In fact, he’s running around the seats like a crazy person when his wife goes into labor and he has to get batteries from a neighbor around the corner, saying “Excuse me” as he moves between the rows, not just up and down the aisles. And this time, I find myself weeping as he talks about his father because it’s too fresh for him, just as it’s too fresh for me. Will either of us ever be ok?
Sea Wall/A Life wouldn’t work without the extraordinary ability of actors Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal to be completely open and vulnerable enough to live in the moment and share it with us. And director Carrie Cracknell’s ability to create a safe enough space for them to do it in and us to absorb it. It takes a lot of skill to set the evening up so that it is a collaboration between the actors on the stage and the audience in the seats, and Carrie Cracknell has cracked that code.
(Photo by Richard Hubert Smith)
"Directed by Carrie Cracknell, Sea Wall/A Life — a hit downtown early this year, at the Public Theater — is the most stripped-down storytelling on Broadway right now. The quiet spectacle these plays offer is in the acting of tragicomedies of love and loss, young men’s stories about fatherhood and family, and about the hole that grief can blast right through a person’s center."
Laura Collins-Hughes for New York Times
"Pairing two shows back-to-back sometimes brings out the best in both; sometimes, it only makes the virtues of one of them shine brighter. The latter is the case in Sea Wall/A Life, a diptych of works by English playwrights that ran at the Public Theater earlier this year and has now moved to Broadway for a brief engagement. The two pieces are superficially similar: Both are one-act monologues for men, and both deal with grief; both, oddly enough, include references to ER. But in every regard, the first of the two puts the second in the shade."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"The two one act plays in the double bill entitled Sea Wall/A Life are, on the surface, very small works. But they concern some very big themes: life, death, birth. Even so, the idea of a show featuring a pair of monologues on a mostly bare stage will likely turn some people off. Certainly true in lesser hands, but this is a beautifully intimate production featuring performances so sharply focused, anything more would be a distraction."
Roma Torre for NY1
"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
"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 Broadway’s intimate Hudson Theatre — 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