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Theatre in Review: Sea Wall/A Life (Hudson Theatre)

Jake Gyllenhaal, Tom Sturridge. Photo: Robert Smith.

As delicate as Meissen china yet hard as bedrock are these two solo pieces, each of which offers vexing truths about the fragility of existence, the caprices of fortune, and the sheer mystery of why we are alive. They also showcase two very different, and equally accomplished, performances. Having transferred from the Public Theater after an acclaimed run last winter, they are, arguably, seen to even better advantage on Broadway.

This is, in part, because the Hudson Theatre, surprisingly, feels more intimate than the Public's Newman Theater. (The Hudson has more than three times the seating capacity of the Newman, but the latter suffers from a long, railroad-flat format that is not ideal for solo shows; the Hudson stacks its seats on three levels, pushing the audience closer to the stage.) But it is also the case that each of the evening's stars -- Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal, both of whom were first-rate at the Public -- has acquired a bone-deep immersion in his character; each is capable of turning a full house into his collective confidante for a heartrending tale of love and loss. Twice over, the audience is conquered.

In Sea Wall, the opener, Sturridge is Alex, a diffident photographer of no real ambition who has stumbled into a domestic paradise, populated by his wife, Helen, and daughter, Lucy. They are joined, during summer vacations, by Helen's father, Arthur, a military man turned math teacher, who -- despite his gruff, abrupt manner -- is putty in Lucy's hands. "She had us, both of us, absolutely round her finger," Alex admits. "Fundamentally, she achieved this through the way she looked at us. It shouldn't have been a surprise that the way she moved her head to one side should leave me basically on my knees or more akin, I should say, to a slightly tepid pool of just water."

One of the marvels of Sturridge's performance is his ability to recall transcendent happiness without becoming cloying; even as he oddly avoids eye contact with the audience, his radiance can't be contained. Not that Alex takes his luck -- which, over time, includes material success -- for granted: "I've fucked a lot of things up and somehow by the skin of my teeth managed to largely come out unscathed," he adds, making a comment that, all too soon, will be heartbreakingly refuted.

Scattered throughout Sea Wall are hints of unspoken tragedy, not least the way in which Alex will suddenly lose the thread of his story and trail off, his gaze fixed on some unknown horizon. Also woven throughout are his arguments with Arthur, a believer, about the existence of God. These acquire a feverish intensity, far beyond the fun of debate for its own sake, as Alex furiously presses his case: "Is he on the edge of our solar system? Is he on the edge of our galaxy? Because every time we think we've located where he must be then we find out something else and we realize that God can't be there. Is he 15 billion light years away? On the very edges of the universe? In the parts of the universe that take on the form of the time of the Big Bang? That have that kind of density? Is he there? Is that where he is?"

When the hammer blow lands, the actor, armed with the devastatingly precise language of playwright Simon Stephens, delivers the news so quietly and with such taut restraint that it sends a murmur of dismay through the house. Suddenly, all of Alex's apparent mannerisms -- the distracted nature, the haunted expressions, the unforeseen bursts of intensity -- can be fully understood: His little family is struck by the sort of random accident to which no redemptive meaning can be attached, and he is left clinging to the shards of Arthur's amateur theology: "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." As a portrait of a lost soul, Sea Wall has few, if any, contemporary peers.

One of the fascinations about A Life is how it frames similar issues of life and death to such different effect -- in part because Nick Payne's text binds humor and sadness in such an intricate pattern. "When she tells me she might be pregnant, I'm in the middle of roasting a chicken," begins Abe, the narrator, landing a non sequitur laugh with his very first line. Much of A Life is rooted in the well-observed comedy of impending parenthood -- the lists of possible names, the endless preparations for the labor, the bizarre details of birthing classes -- but, with head-snapping felicity, it repeatedly switches focus to Abe's father, who is dying of heart disease; as the older man's symptoms accumulate -- tingling and numbness in his limbs, followed episodes of weakness and bursts of tears, and, finally, exploratory surgery that yields grim results -- Abe becomes witness to the previously unimaginable.

If Sturridge is a kind of magnetic pole, drawing the audience inexorably toward him with his hushed intensity, Gyllenhaal is a skilled plate-spinner, keeping conflicting tones of sadness and hilarity in simultaneous motion. Abe's farcical account of getting his wife to the hospital, despite his panic and ineffectiveness, climaxes in an enormous laugh when he says, "Her hands are shaking so much, she can't get the key into the ignition. I say d'you want me to drive, why don't I drive?" The laughter is strangled by the following two lines ("Mom it's okay, I'm happy to drive. Her hands are turning white; that's how tight she's holding on"), in which one realizes that, without warning, he is in fact describing the race to his father's bedside before it is too late.

You might expect A Life to end with these experiences of life and death paired in a sort of circle-of-life celebration, but Payne adds a coda in which Abe finds himself poleaxed by grief and anxiety. His new daughter brings no comfort, because, he insists plaintively, "The truth is I'm not a dad. I'm a son." His confidence is shattered by another (amusing, if you aren't a parent) episode of ineptitude, which leads to an epiphany in which, to his surprise, he learns how joy can exist in perfect equipoise with sorrow. Unlike in Sea Wall, the question of how this can be is deferred to another day.

The director, Carrie Cracknell, who has done superb work with her actors, has shifted some of her design personnel in bringing the production uptown. Laura Jellinek's carefully crafted bare-stage look, with a second level located at the back, remains, but the costume designer, Kaye Voyce, has been joined by Christopher Peterson; as before, both characters are cannily dressed in a casual, unflattering manner that sends signals of their interior distress. Guy Hoare has joined as lighting designer, making strong use of side light in Sea Wall and relying on a single spotlight for most of A Life. Daniel Kluger's sound design includes a handful of ocean-related effects in Sea Wall and abstract sounds that cue shifts in the narrative of A Life. Luke Halls has been engaged to provide a single projected image for the final tableau; it proves to be entirely unnecessary.

This is because Cracknell has already provided a simple and penetrating gesture that links both plays, each of which, for all their differences, arrives at the same sobering conclusion: Happy or sad, fulfilled or not, single or coupled, we live on a knife's edge, ready to fall off at any moment. Make of that what you will. --David Barbour

(15 August 2019)

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