Off Broadway Reviews
The two works, running about 45 minutes each, share similar themes but were created by different playwrights a decade apart and wend along different paths, in content, style, and delivery. Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) scripted Sea Wall in 2008; Nick Payne (Constellations) wrote A Life for this production. For a succinct synopsis of their congruity, turn to The Book of Common Prayer: In the midst of life, we are in death.
Each of the plays is about a man in deep bereavement. Grief being pretty much a universal experience, the fundamental stories each of them brings to the fore are familiar if nonetheless wrenching to hear: the loss of a child, the loss of a parent. Yet it is also true that we all have to navigate through sorrow in our own way, so that what fascinates here is how each actor approaches his performance.
Sturridge, as Alex, is all introspective, save for his constantly busy and expressive hands as he relocates between the lower stage and an upper platform while picking at the still forming scabs over what happened on that terrible day when he and his family were on vacation along the French Mediterranean. He is both forthcoming and frozen into anguished inarticulateness, with unfinished thoughts, equal parts blame and guilt, that are left dangling in silence, at one point for a full minute as he anxiously paces. It feels both harrowing and intrusive to watch this man who describes himself as someone who will burst into tears over an episode of ER, now locked in a place where, he says, "I have a complete and total inability to cry."
Gyllenhaal's character, Abe, has much to say, and, unlike Sturridge's Alex, he welcomes an audience. His story is full of adjectives and flourishes as he recounts a mix of heartbreak and joy that has engulfed his life seemingly simultaneously. In some ways, the role is more difficult to pull off. There are multiple voices here as Abe tries to reproduce remembered conversations. Yet Gyllenhaal never attempts to change Abe's speech patterns to match the various characters the way a professional storyteller might. This is Abe's story told in his voice alone. It is up to us to follow along as he leaps from one to another and from mood to mood.
The juxtaposition of the two plays about the intransigent but somehow always surprising inevitability of creation and perishability makes for a theatrically galvanizing experience. Along with kudos to Sturridge and Gyllenhaal, much praise goes to director Carrie Cracknell, who has done outstanding work in revealing both the divergences and the intersections of these two superlatively performed solo works.
Sea Wall/A Life