REVIEW: “Sea Wall / A Life” on Broadway
Of all the outstanding pieces of theatre I saw Off-Broadway last season, “Sea Wall / A Life”, which played a sold-out spring run at the Public Theater, did not even make my imaginary list of anticipated Broadway transfers.
And yet, buoyed by the star power of its marquee actors, Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge of screens both big and small (and the occasional stage), the play opened at the Hudson Theatre on August 8th for a limited run through September 29th.
A unique offering at the Public Theater’s flagship 299-seat Newman Theatre downtown—let alone the 1,050-seat Hudson Theatre off Times Square—“Sea Wall / A Life” consists of two monologues by two different playwrights performed by two different actors.
While beautiful and raw, neither monologue is particularly remarkable on its own, but together they form a unified, if redundant, evening about facing grief and encountering personal tragedy—a rather contemplative and depressing affair that is no doubt a surprise for many Gyllenhaal/Sturridge fans who paid top dollar to see these heartthrobs in the flesh.
On a sparsely adorned, two leveled, brick wall set by Laura Jellinek faithfully recreated for Broadway, Mr. 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 [spoiler alert] 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, Mr. 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.
As others have noted, “play” is a generous word for this production. Instead, it is best viewed as a comparative study in acting—more graduate school showcase than Broadway show.
The saving grace is that Mr. Sturridge and Mr. Gyllenhaal give fine performances, now even more tightly honed and sharply delivered than they were downtown last spring—though Mr. Gyllenhaal still clearly has the audience-favorite piece, and the ending (no spoilers), even as re-tooled, provides a strained attempt at a unified button where perhaps none is to be found.
The piece felt small for the Newman, but amazingly doesn’t seem any smaller in a house three-times the size—a testament to the expert craft of both the design team, led by director Carrie Cracknell, and the actors.
In the end though, even as I admire Mr. Gyllenhaal and Mr. Sturridge and the producing chutzpah that made this transfer possible, after a second viewing I still can’t help but wonder: why these two monologues? I don’t know.
At a minimum, “Sea Wall / A Life” provides two well-written pieces of storytelling whose power derives from the strength of their solo performance, rather than from any theatrical trappings—an increasingly rare sight on Broadway.
Bottom Line: “Sea Wall / A Life”—two monologues by two different playwrights performed by two different actors—is a unique offering for Broadway: two well-written pieces of storytelling whose power derives from the strength of their solo performance, rather than from any theatrical trappings. Following a transfer from the Public Theatre, the “play” still doesn’t justify its composition, but is saved by engaging performances by its marquee stars: Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge.
This review was adapted from an earlier review.
“Sea Wall/A Life”
141 West 44th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: one hour, 45 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: August 8, 2019
Final Performance: September 29, 2019