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Theatre in Review: Sea Wall/A Life (The Public Theater)

Tom Sturridge. Photo: Joan Marcus.

A couple of spellbinders are holding forth at the Public's Newman Theater these nights. Quite apart from their considerable emotional impact, these intriguingly paired solo pieces provide a fascinating study in how two very different -- if equally gifted -- actors achieve their effects. Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge are currently starring in the film Velvet Buzzsaw, but, seeing them onstage, offering distinct accounts of parents and children, life and death, each seems to hail from a different, if equally compelling, dramatic universe. Sturridge functions as a kind of human magnet, working subtly, but with feverish intensity, to pull us inexorably into his tale of tragedy. Gyllenhaal juggles two story lines with the skill of a circus performer, but don't let his facility fool you; when you least expect it, he brings you up short with an unexpected burst of truth.

In Sea Wall, Sturridge is Alex, a photographer, upon whom life visits extraordinary happiness in the form of his wife, Helen; a daughter, Lucy; and, surprisingly, his father-in-law, Arthur. The two men have little in common. Alex is mild-mannered and, before his career takes off, seems a bit of a loser. In the years since Lucy's birth, he says, candidly, "I've fucked a lot of things up and somehow by the skin of my teeth managed to largely come out unscathed." Whatever has happened in the past, he seems to exist in a state of grace; speaking of Helen and Lucy, he says fondly, "They make little wisecracks about me. The two of them standing there, sizing me up, but I know if they push it too far that [Lucy will] come running over to me and put her arms around me, because the idea of properly making me sad makes her feel a little bit sick."

Arthur is ex-Army, living idyllically in the South of France, where he hosts the little family each summer. He is also a profound believer in God, a topic about which he and Alex argue ferociously. The feverish intensity of these moments is startling; equally bemusing is the way Alex sometimes wanders off in mid-sentence, his gaze fixed on some unknown horizon. At one point, he accidentally knocks over a box of pictures and pauses, staring at it like a crime scene. (Sea Wall features some of the most pregnant pauses this side of Harold Pinter.) And there's this unsettling comment: "There's a hole running through the center of my stomach. You must have all felt a bit awkward because you can probably see it. Even in this light."

Long before he reveals the truth, it is obvious that something terrible has happened to Alex; I can't tell you what it is, except to note that it is explained, without sensationalism but in devastating detail, and, as precisely delivered by Sturridge, it casts a stunned hush over the audience. Sea Wall begins with a touch of rhapsody and ends as a portrait of a hollowed-out soul and a contemplation of the fragility of life; it suggests, provocatively, that when the world grants us love and contentment, it is really setting us up for the most precipitous of falls. And yet who would pass up the former? By the end of Simon Stephens' carefully wrought piece, Alex clings to Arthur's words when defending his beliefs: "Just because we don't know doesn't mean we won't know. We just don't know yet. But I think one day we will. I think we will."

A Life begins with Abe, our narrator, in an off-the-wall moment of comedy: "When she tells me she might be pregnant I'm in the middle of roasting a chicken." If Gyllenhaal has generally been known for his brooding intensity, here he proves equally deft at throwing away laugh lines. Whether clinically scanning a list of baby names, confiding to us, "I am in awe of my wife's cervix!" or struggling to put together "a small carbohydrate meal" (as the baby books dictate) while his spouse tries to figure out if her water has broken, there are passages of A Life that make a charming companion to Mike Birbiglia's The New One.

In A Life, these charming bits of domestic comedy are layered with scenes depicting the decline and death of Abe's father, whose illness begins years earlier, with an unexpected weakness and tingling in the arms and continues, years later, with unexpected bursts of tears at the dinner table. Going into the hospital for an angioplasty, his condition is discovered to be much worse than anyone had imagined. About taking his dad from the hospital bed to the bathroom -- achieved with no small struggle -- Abe says, "I've never seen him look this vulnerable before in my life. A tiny, wheezing, flat-footed old man." Without warning, the doctor tells Abe, "The next step is to ensure that your father is comfortable." Asking what his father has been told, he is informed, "We...we try to operate within a culture of optimism."

A Life is cleverly put together, the comedy of birth carefully interwoven with the tragedy of loss, and Gyllenhaal switches between stories and tones like a magician pulling coins and cards out of thin air. He is aided by the constantly perceptive writing of Nick Payne: An instance of Abe's wife spotting blood leads to a nerve-wracking hospital trip, where a sonogram reveals "what looks like an X-ray of a pile of tiny kitten bones." Then, without warning, Abe's composure cracks and he says, "I'm not sure I'm ready to be a dad." The look on Gyllenhaal's face -- guilt and terror and sorrow, commingled -- is a small revelation. There's a reason that Payne has structured his story this way, and the actor has been setting us up for this moment all along.

It leads to an even more penetrating sequence in which, left alone with his infant daughter for the first time, Abe experiences a debilitating wave of panic, which is not helped when he makes a mortifying error in baby care. The moment of truth that follows is both hopeful and more than a little scary, an unsettling reminder that no one begins parenthood with the faintest idea of how to proceed. As Abe admits, with no small amount of anguish, "The truth is, I'm not a dad. I'm a son. Why would I know how to do this?"

Payne brings A Life to a moving conclusion that, surprisingly, leaves Abe with a realization of the evanescence of life that makes him the spiritual brother of Alex. Carrie Cracknell, the director, who has done such marvelously detailed work with both actors, brings them together at last for a final tableau that, in a single stroke, reveals how felicitously these plays have been paired. Alex and Abe are mirror images of each other, each of them having learned that happiness is both not easily defined and highly perishable; the greatest fulfillment can vanish in a single banal moment. It's a mystery that you can spend your entire life trying to figure out.

Both plays are staged on Laura Jellinek's stark set -- a bare stage with a second level -- which feels suitable for each. At times, particularly during Sea Wall, I wished the lighting designer, Peter Kaczorowski, would have bumped up the levels a few watts, but there is little doubt about the sensitivity of his work. Kaye Voyce's costumes look right and Fabian Obispo's sound design provides reinforcement for Stuart Earl's brief interlude of original music.

But the actors are the thing here, along with the words. Whether you prefer Sturridge's slow-burning intensity or Gyllenhaal's deceptively easy technical skill, both of them know how to serve their texts for maximum impact. They make up one of the finest double acts in town. -- David Barbour


(14 February 2019)

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