Theatre Review by Howard Miller - August 8, 2019
Sea Wall/A Life by Simon Stephens & Nick Payne. Directed by Carrie Cracknell. Scenic design by Laura Jellinek. Costume design by Kaye Voyce & Christopher Peterson. Lighting design by Guy Hoare. Sound design by Daniel Kluger. Projection design by Luke Halls. Original music by Stuart Earl. Cast: Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Put to rest any cynical thoughts that this transfer from the Public Theater, where Sea Wall/A Life had a short run just a few months back, is merely a get-rich-quick scheme to cash in on the bankable popularity of, especially, Mr. Gyllenhaal. The basic set design, most of the blocking, and the words remain the same. It is the performances that have undergone a revelatory transformation, so that what had once been an interesting double bill of case studies about love and loss and grief and healing is now so universally honest that it is likely to hit home with pretty much every audience member.
The shift from sympathy-inducing to empathy-building is far more challenging in the highly introspective first piece, playwright Simon Stephens's Sea Wall, in which Mr. Sturridge plays a man who is embarking on a very long journey toward mending after a life-shattering loss. What we saw at the Public was only the pulsating pain of raw wounds, a kind of "don't look at me; don't touch me" performance. But here Sturridge's character, Alex, has dropped his guard just the slightest, so that he seems to realize he is in the company of a friend, or possibly a therapist. That's us. And in order to be that person, we must listen attentively and allow him to mete out however much and in whatever way he is able to.
There are awkward pauses and unfinished thoughts from time to time as Alex's mind pulls him back into his anguish, but he also is able to conjure up and even share happy memories. This is an extraordinarily challenging balancing act to pull off, and Sturridge, whose most recent Broadway appearance was as Winston Smith in the thrillingly disturbing production of 1984 at this same theater, takes a deep dive into the role in which even those moments of blanking out are so authentic-seeming that at least some audience members mistake them for the forgetting of lines. It is an astoundingly convincing portrayal.
His Abe is an Everyguy, someone that many in the audience will recognize in themselves or in a partner as a man who has no idea how to handle an emergency, even one for which he is prepared for with "to do" lists and a cell phone on which he can call for help.
Gyllenhaal's commitment to theatrical acting has been wonderful to observe, from his previous collaborations with the playwright Nick Payne in If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet and Constellations to his stints with the musicals Little Shop of Horrors and Sunday in the Park with George. He is among the rare breed of readily recognized celebrities who make the greatest of efforts to inhabit a role without seeming to seek acclaim. While he cannot avoid incorporating some of his natural gregariousness into the role of Abe, particularly when he runs through and interacts with members the audience at a moment of joyful panic, he has turned this into a supremely believable performance whose emotional core is sure to pull you in.
Much credit must go to Carrie Cracknell's velvet-glove direction, Laura Jellinek's simple but effective two-tiered set, Guy Hoare's lighting design, Daniel Kluger's sound design, and Stuart Earl's original score, none of which is obtrusive and all of which contribute to making this Off Broadway-to-Broadway transfer a truly riveting experience.