As the audience begins to take their seats in the Public Theater’s Newman Theatre, actor Tom Sturridge quietly takes the stage, placing objects around the space that only holds a piano and a small dresser. He’s deep in thought as he pours himself what appears to be a beer and drinks, before he manually switches the theater lights on and begins to speak.
It’s a perfect beginning to the pair of monologues that make up the Off Broadway production of Sea Wall/A Life, a very intimate night of theater from director Carrie Cracknell, who previously brought A Doll’s House to the stage in London’s West End and at Brooklyn’s BAM. Cracknell keeps everything so small to the point that brushing up near one of the actors isn’t too far out of the realm of possibility. Sturridge (Starz’s Sweetbitter) and Jake Gyllenhaal, who most recently costarred in Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw, both are paired up with playwrights with whom they’ve collaborated many times before.
The first half, Sea Wall, is Sturridge’s third collaboration with Simon Stephens (The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time). As he begins his heartbreaking tale as Alex, it’s clear that actor and playwright are truly a match made. In his slouchy Adidas track pants, Sturridge begins his solo tale describing a man — the dialogue filled with jokes and impersonations — and goes into something much darker and deeper about his own history as he continually tries to deflect the heartache he’s clearly suffering from. It’s a tricky balance and Sturridge deftly portrays the grief of a man who’s trying so hard to keep the rest of himself from unraveling, or to let the audience know just how deep his pain goes, so he keeps asking questions about what he doesn’t know: God, Pi, the Sea Wall. Sturridge’s quiet pain is the perfect counter to Gyllenhaal’s more manic energy in A Life.
That piece — written by Nick Payne (Constellations), whom Gyllenhaal has collaborated with many times before — takes many of the same themes from Sea Wall (the questioning of life, being a father, being a man) and offers a slightly different spin on them. Instead of coming out in light like Sturridge, Gyllenhaal makes his entrance in pure darkness. And while Sturridge saunters around the stage, Gyllenhaal mostly stays put, only using an iPhone to anchor his monologue. His story begins with a pregnancy, one he’s not sure how he feels about. He goes back and forth between two different stories, unable to untwine them from one another, precisely because they’ve both created this new fabric he’s made of. And much like Sea Wall/A Life is full of the intimacies of family, from mundane lists to favorite songs. Gyllenhaal is magnetic and funny, and plays it high strung, which makes a slip into a well recognizable ’90s movie monologue even more heartbreaking.
With two overwhelmingly great performances, where Sea Wall/A Life fumbles the smallest bit is really concretely tying the two halves together — the works are thematically similar and there are little bits and pieces of dialogue that, if you are paying close attention, link them together. But if you aren’t (because you’ll really be in your feelings by this point), the ending might fall a bit flat. All in all, though, that’s a very minor complaint for an evening that will emotionally wreck you, convince you of Sturridge’s acting prowess, and further consider that Gyllenhaal is one of the finest actors of his generation. B+