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A CurtainUp Review
Sea Wall/A Life

It drops down. Hundreds of feet,and swimming there, with the sun, even bright as it is above us. . .even then the darkness of the fall that the wall in the sea reveals is as terrifying as anything I've ever seen. — Alex about the titular wall.

The difference between us and yeast, is basically a matter of structure. We share fifty per cent of our genetic code with a banana. Ninety per cent of our cells are bacterial. — Abe, more humorously pondering life's beginning (for his child) and ending (his father's).
When it comes to solo shows, I'm always hoping for one to make me more enthusiastic about this format. And indeed I've seen plenty of dynamically performed, interestingly scripted and dramatically staged solos; for example, the bravura performances of John Douglas Thompson and Debra Jo Rupp, who are currently in multi-character plays on and off Broadway (Thompson in King Lear, Rupp in The Cake), several seasons ago gave Satchmo at the Waldorf & Becoming Dr. Ruth the legs to transfer from regional premieres to New York's West Side Theater.

For sure, Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal, have powerful enough acting chops, not to mention ticket selling star power, to make Sea Wall/A Life, a high profile, electrifying experience, especially since the scribes for this solo duet are also high profile: Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time & Heisenberg) and Nick Payne (Constellations & If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet).

Sturridge and Gyllenhaal are indeed fine thespians and Stephens and Payne know how to write intelligent, meaningful dialogue. The ideas both Sturridge's Alex and Gyllenhaal's Abe ponder give these separately written monologues a thematic connection. So this double duo really electrify? Would it sell every seat in the Public's largest theater without Gyllenhaal and Sturridge?

It's understandable that the Public Theater is accommodating the actors' many fans by staging these monologues in the Newman instead of one of their smaller venues. To their credit, neither actor showboats his role. And director Carrie Cracknell and her designers haven't gone overboard to take advantage of the big stage. Instead they've created an appropriately almost bare visual environment. Still, these delicate pieces belong in a more intimate setting.

sea wall
Tom Sturridge (Joan Marcus)
Both monologues are essentially meditations by fairly ordinary men exploring questions of fatherhood, marriage, meaning of life with numerous with stream-of-consciousness detours. Each runs approximately 40 minutes, with Sea Wall the curtain raiser.

Sturridge's Alex is a photographer whose recollections cover visits to the French seaside retirement home of his father-in-law, a former military man and math teacher. While Alex clearly had his problems, nothing is going to top the tragedy which, for all his rambling recollections, is going to erupt eventually.

To break the monotony of having Alex deliver his story standing in the spotlight like a speaker at a Ted Talk, Cracknell has him clamber up and down between that spotlight position and the upper level representing the titular wall.

Jake Gyllenhaal (Photo: Joan Marcus)
After Sea Wall finally reveals the details of its inevitable tragedy, it's on to Nick Payne's A Life with Jake Gyllenhaal as our narrator. The mood here is lighter and actually offers quite a few chuckles. His Abe too is happily married, in this case to a woman who's about to give birth to a daughter. The mood is less sober though not without its tragedy. In this case he's caught between witnessing life's beginnings (the birth of his daughter) and ending (the fatal and painful decline of his father).

Unlike the Sea Wall staging, that upper wall is pretty much blacked out, though Abe does have his chance to break free from that lecture stance by actually leaving the stage, heading up one aisle and then moving past Row H, where I happened to be sitting, to head back on the other side. It was fun to see him briefly that up close. And the piano that seemed on stage for no reason in Sea Wall, does get a brief (if not particularly necessary) work out here.

This double bill has been smartly staged and it's certainly a treat to see these actors strut their stuff in the flesh. Still, the similarity of their monologues presented right on top of one another somehow dramatically weakens rather than strengthens the connection.






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PRODUCTION NOTES
Sea Wall / A Life
Sea Wall by Simon Stephens
Starring Tom Sturridge
A Life by Nick Payne
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal Directed by Carrie Cracknell
Sets: Laura Jellinek
Costumes:Kaye Voyce
Lighting: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound; Fabian Obispo
Original Music: Stuart Earl
Stage Manager: Peter Lawrence
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes. Public's Newman Theater
From 2/01/19; opening 2/14/19; closing 3/31/19
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on March 3, 2019


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