With its many pictures of smiling actors, the website for Broadway’s Sea Wall / A Life is a bit vague about what’s on offer, so I’ll tell you: It’s two monologues about grief. We’re not talking about tragedy, just the dreary reality of dealing with the death of loved ones. Art can shed light on our deepest sorrows and traumas, but these two brief plays are more like glib gestures in the direction of loss.
The death theme is supposed to reveal itself only gradually, but that’s pretty much a non-starter given the format. These days when I walk into a one-man show that isn’t a comedy act, I say to myself, “I wonder who gets killed in this one?” First the British actor Tom Sturridge and then the American Jake Gyllenhaal (who appeared together in the recent Netflix supernatural art-world satire Velvet Buzzsaw) gets the stage to himself, in each case for the better part of an hour spent in confessional mode.
The first monologue, Sea Wall, written by Simon Stephens, is much the inferior work. Sturridge, playing a British commercial photographer with a charming working-class tinge to his voice, opens the play sipping a pint while sitting atop a brick wall and making eye contact with members of the audience, or seeming to. This is rare in theater, but it’s nothing more than a gimmick to establish a contrived sense of intimacy. We’re all here existing in this space together, man. Deep.
Stephens’s Alex recalls the most indelible details of his relationship with his young daughter and his father-in-law, a former soldier in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces who saw grim duty in Northern Ireland and in the Falkland Islands war. In retirement he became a mentor to Alex, whom he taught to scuba-dive in the Mediterranean, near his house in the south of France. Occasionally the two men would discuss the existence of God, on which Alex is not quite sold. These conversations sound fairly excruciating, though Stephens presents them as playfully profound. Maybe, Stephens writes, God exists in the space between two numbers?
The play is lumpy with such ghastly-bordering-on-moronic observations. Though the boyish, blokish Sturridge is likable enough, even as he milks every line with a lot of stagy body movement (for several moments he stands with his right arm sticking straight out, parallel to the ground), his character ultimately isn’t interesting. He talks much, but has little to say except to deliver a long, slow buildup to the cheap dramatic “reveal” that exploits the audience’s natural sympathies in a revolting, tawdry way. I suppose I would have been shaken to the core if Alex ever seemed like anything more than a device, or if the play contained any genuine feeling, but he doesn’t and it doesn’t.
Nick Payne’s A Life, Gyllenhaal’s monologue, is inoffensive and occasionally sweet, but as it mulls questions of life and death it offers little that’s touching or original. That imagination-challenged title is the first giveaway: Could you possibly devise a less compelling phrase to affix to a marquee than A Life?
Gyllenhaal has become a delightful actor in recent years, though, never content to take the same route twice. Those who saw him as, say, the duplicitous Mysterio in Spider-Man: Far From Home, or as the focused-to-autistic Georges Seurat in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sunday in the Park with George, which played in this same theater two years ago, will be caught off guard by the loose, chatty, slightly nerdish quality Gyllenhaal brings to this everyman character, Abe.
Abe shares his mixed-up thoughts about the death of his father and the birth of his daughter, two events that become entangled in his mind though they took place some time apart. It’s not a bad motif for a monologue but the birth–death comparison is so trite it needs a much more imaginative approach. In anxious-father mode, Gyllenhaal does his best with sitcom-level material about choosing baby names and how expectant dads become frenzied with the desire to be helpful. To add some comic punch, Gyllenhaal does a lot of business — fussing with the stage lights and even venturing out into the auditorium. I think he must have picked up this trick from Annaleigh Ashford, his co-star in Sunday in the Park with George, who makes a habit of leaping off the stage and sprinting around the perimeter of the theater on any pretext. Gyllenhaal does her one better this time: After doing a tour of the auditorium, he enters a row of seats occupied by audience members and makes his tortured way across the breadth of the theater. I’ve never seen an actor do this before, but then again I doubt John Gielgud ever felt the need. I suppose the Millennials in the theater were thinking, “How fun! I wish I could Instagram this!” A theatrical performance that seeks to indulge whatever audience is present for the sake of proximity to a celebrity, though, is losing sight of its purpose.
A Life does occasionally offer an amusing aside or a tender observation — “The truth is, I’m not a dad; I’m a son,” Abe says, when this statement becomes no longer true — but apart from Gyllenhaal’s rangy performance it feels more like an extended anecdote than a polished work of theater. If Payne’s writing were stronger, I doubt Gyllenhaal would have felt the need to resort to gimmicks. As it is, the best that can be said about the text of A Life is that it’s not unpleasant.