REVIEWS: “Sea Wall / A Life”, “Mies Julie”, and “The Dance of Death”
Two duos of complementary works recently opened Off-Broadway: “Sea Wall / A Life” at the Public Theater, featuring Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal performing monologues by Simon Stephens and Nick Payne, and Classic Stage Company’s repertory presentation of “Mies Julie” and “The Dance of Death”, two newly adapted works of August Strindberg. Below is a short look at each.
“Sea Wall / A Life” (New Play, Public Theater): in a unique offering at the Public Theater’s flagship Newman Theatre, two monologues by two different playwrights are performed by two different actors as one play. While beautiful and raw, neither is particularly remarkable on its own, but together they form a unified if redundant evening about facing grief and encountering personal tragedy. On a sparsely adorned, two leveled, brick wall set by Laura Jellinek, Tom Sturridge (“Orphans”, “1984”) opens with “Sea Wall” by Simon Stephens (“Heisenberg”, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”). This monologue finds its British character recounting the story of visits to his father-in-law’s home in the South of France, and one fateful day where his daughter is killed falling down a cliff leading to the sea. It’s a sobering account, delivered with a leveled, matter-of-fact intensity that is chilling and grim.
Following an intermission, Jake Gyllenhaal (“Sunday in the Park with George”, “Constellations”) performs “A Life” by Nick Payne (“Constellations”, “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet”). By far the more engaging and universal of the two pieces, this one finds Mr. Gyllenhaal rapidly and seamlessly cutting back and forth between two stories, the death of his father and the birth of his daughter, told with unsparing detail, mania, humor, and sadness. Both actors excel, though Mr. Gyllenhaal clearly has the better piece, and the ending (no spoilers) provides a satisfying moment of catharsis. While the evening, under the direction of Carrie Cracknell, is ultimately unable to justify its own composition—why these two monologues? I still don’t know—it does, at a minimum, provide two well-written and performed pieces of storytelling, even if a less charitable view might see it as nothing more than a marquee cash cow more deserving of an intimate space. To wit: the run, in the Public’s largest theatre, is nearly sold out. Opened February 14th; runs through March 31st at the Public Theater’s Newman Theatre. Tickets.
“Mies Julie” and “The Dance of Death” (Revival Play, Classic Stage Company): sympatico with its mission to reimagine classic stories for contemporary audiences, Classic Stage Company presents two new adaptions of plays by Swedish playwright August Strindberg (1849-1912) in repertory. Strindberg was a groundbreaking dramatist whose bold (and depressing!) experiments with naturalism in the 19th century helped reshape the course of modern drama. “Mies Julie” is Yaël Farber’s adaption of his pioneering play “Miss Julie” (1888) about a patrician woman who consummates a forbidden romance with a servant and then kills herself. Ms. Farber, a celebrated South African playwright and director, translocates the play from 19th century Sweden to South Africa in 2012, still grappling with the aftermath of decades of apartheid rule. This new setting inserts a jolting socio-political milieu into a familiar story, upping the stakes for a modern audience while maintaining the naturalistic edge that makes “Miss Julie” a classic. Director Shariffa Ali shapes a highly legible and truthful production with stunning performances by James Udom and Elise Kibler. This one is worth seeing, especially since New York theatregoers so rarely get to see “Miss Julie” on stage.
On alternate nights, Conor McPherson’s new adaption of “The Dance of Death” is performed on the same oval platform, albeit with different trappings. While today’s audiences know Albee’s George and Martha, Strindberg gave us Edgar (Richard Topol) and Alice (Cassie Beck) in 1900—another unhappily married couple who engage in a dangerous round of party games with an unwitting guest. Mr. McPherson (“The Weir”, “The Seafarer”) keeps the play as a period piece in turn of the century Sweden, but brushes up the language. Under director Victoria Clark (best known for her career as a musical theatre actor), though, the performances are unsatisfying and overly colorful, undermining the more serious portrait of a marriage that is at work underneath. Both opened February 10th and run through March 10th at Classic Stage Company. Tickets.