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Sea Wall/A Life

Posted 8/17/19

Sea Wall/A Life  reviewed  by Fern Siegel for

An intimate chamber piece now at the Hudson Theater, Sea Wall/A Life posits two men musing on life, death and love. But mostly, it’s about death. The double bill, by authors Simon Stephens (Sea Wall) and Nick Payne (A Life), embarks on a journey of memory and moment.

It’s not a cohesive narrative, but it is a moving one.

Both plays are beautifully performed — Tom Sturridge in act one and Jake Gyllenhaal in act two. Their styles are quite different; an excellent Sturridge is clearly traumatized by his experience, while Gyllenhaal’s sad monologue is laced with more physicality and even the occasionally humorous note.

Yet each delivers a hypnotic performance.

Two separate authors address the emotional, gut-wrenching experiences of loss. It’s personal and achingly relatable.

Set on a bare stage, two levels of brick walls designed by Laura Jelinkek and subtly lit by Guy Hoare, present a minimalist backdrop to multifaceted monologues. Stripped of any visual markers, it’s the evocative stories that resonate.

The production opens with Sea Wall. Alex (Sturridge) is struggling to understand the last decade of his life. “People like me,” says Alex, “They think I’m gentle.”

During visits to his father-in-law’s home in France, Alex first encounters a sea wall. “As terrifying as anything I’ve seen. I had no idea that the bed of the sea was built like that,” he says. “I thought it was a gradual slope.” Instead, the water gradually rises until it hits a huge, unexpected 40-foot drop. It’s terrifying — and an apt metaphor for tragedy. It often comes at you suddenly, without warning.

That gradual descent into despair is part of Alex’s tale. His story has a strong underpinning of contentment, as he realizes the extent of his familial happiness. But his dreams are like quicksilver, they can change in a heartbeat.

Sturridge tells his tale suffused in pain. He’s defined by death and confounded by the notion that a few seconds can change his life. Sea Wall muses on the concept of God, and the cosmic quest to understand, at one’s lowest point, why terrible things happen.

Payne’s A Life takes a similar trajectory, but its timing is unclear. Are the events happening simultaneously? Or do they just seem that way, given the narrative? After all, people rarely stay linear when relating ordeals.

Abe (Gyllenhall) has two stories to tell, the death of his father and the birth of his child. Time is fluid; he flows through his life, noting feelings and experiences: falling in love, dealing with his father, from teenager to grown man. Abe is less contemplative; he’s practical, particularly as he relates the details of his wife’s pregnancy and the crazy moments first-time parents experience.

But the searing reality of loss is woven into his story, and the emotional apex comes when he explains the three kinds of death: physical, when the body ceases functioning, emotional, during burial, and eternal, when our names are spoken for the last time. It’s a chilling moment.

Both plays offer millennial men at crucial points in their lives. They grapple with similar themes of death and the excruciating pain it brings. Sea Wall/A Life is not for the faint of heart. Simply directed by Carrie Cracknell, it is a deeply felt exploration of our most vulnerable state and the brutal line of demarcation between happiness and despair.       —Fern Siegel