When I first saw Sea Wall / A Life at the Public’s Newman Theater this past March, I was profoundly moved by the deeply affecting show, a pair of thematically related monologues by two superstar writers, performed by two superstar actors. Seeing it again on Broadway, where it opened tonight at the Hudson Theatre, was a surprisingly different experience. There are some minor tweaks, particularly a beautiful coda along with new lighting choices by Guy Hoare and subtle sound design by Daniel Kluger, but it’s essentially the same presentation, still utterly involving and captivating, delicately directed by Carrie Cracknell on Laura Jellinek’s austere set, which features a piano on one side and a ladder leading to a large brick landing in the back on the other. But this time around I was sitting fourth row center, much closer than I did at the Public, and I was mesmerized by the eyes of the two men onstage. I usually do get great seats, but sitting so near the stage, I was awestruck by the way Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal modulated their performances with just their eyes.
Be sure to arrive early, because as the crowd enters, Gyllenhaal sits at the piano, black-framed glasses on, looking out at the audience, making direct eye contact with as many people as he can. Shortly after he leaves, Sturridge wanders onto the stage, grabs a beer and a box of Polaroids, and takes a seat at the top of the ladder. The actors are making a clear, powerful connection that sets up what is to follow.
First is Simon Stephens’s Sea Wall, in which Tony-nominated British actor Sturridge is Alex, a photographer who shares a riveting story about his wife, Helen; their daughter, Lucy; and Helen’s father, Arthur, building up to an incident that occurred three weeks earlier. Much of the tale takes place in the south of France, where Arthur has a house. As Alex talks about how much he loves his family, his penchant for crying, his difficulty putting on a wetsuit, and the hole in the center of his stomach, Sturridge’s eyes move slowly, stopping and pondering, remembering, afraid to forget. Sharp humor is laced with a melancholia that hovers in the tense air as he walks across the stage and atop the landing, as if the brick wall is the sea wall itself, which is supposed to provide protection to humans and ocean life.
Intermission is followed by Nick Payne’s A Life, in which Oscar-nominated American actor Gyllenhaal is Abe, a music producer whose father is ailing and wife is pregnant. He so seamlessly shifts between the two stories, one of impending death, the other of upcoming birth, that it’s sometimes hard to tell which one he is referring to. As each reaches its conclusion, the back-and-forth becomes rapid fire, life and death overlapping as Abe considers his existence as a father and as a son. Gyllenhaal spends nearly the entire fifty-five minutes in a large spotlight, so we are drawn to his expressive face and his eyes, which dart around faster and faster, seeking acknowledgment, encouragement, and understanding from the audience. It’s a bravura performance that I appreciated in a whole new way by sitting so close. That is not at all to say that you won’t be blown away if you are significantly farther away; it is just different, a theatrical experience that is well worth it no matter where you sit.
Gyllenhaal (Sunday in the Park with George, Brokeback Mountain), who was previously in Payne’s If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet and Constellations, and Sturridge (Orphans, 1984), who was in Stephens’s Punk Rock and Wastwater, wanted to work together, and this is the project they decided on. Even though they do not act side-by-side, they form an intimately linked duo, developing a unique relationship with each other and the audience, as if the plays were written as a set piece, which they were not. Getting to the heart of both shows, Abe says, “I remember reading somewhere or maybe someone telling me about this idea that there are three kinds of deaths. . . . The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when we bury the body, or I guess set it on fire. And the third is the moment, sometime way in the future, when our names are said, spoken aloud, for the very last time. I’m thinking to myself but I don’t say it, I wonder who’s gonna say our child’s name for the last time?” Alex and Abe are filled with the joy of life, but it’s the fear of death that can be overwhelming, to the characters as well as the audience as we consider that prophetic pronouncement.