Love and marriage. Birth and death. Sorrows and joys. Loss and renewal. Bacon and eggs.
Whoops — sorry! My mind wandered to breakfast plans while I was attempting to think of something interesting to say about “Sea Wall” and “A Life,” two modestly engaging solo plays that have rather unnecessarily washed up on Broadway at the Hudson Theatre after a run last season at the Public Theater.
The tide that has borne them here is the centrifugal force that draws many plays of minor distinction to Broadway, namely celebrity. Jake Gyllenhaal, a film star and Oscar nominee, stars along with the lesser-known but also talented British actor Tom Sturridge. Each performs a monologue from the point of view of a father and husband, although one tale — “Sea Wall,” by Simon Stephens, presented first, with Sturridge starring — is notably more bleak than the comparatively benign “A Life,” by Nick Payne.
The stage is dark and starkly bare: Alex (Sturridge), who is sitting atop a stone wall, resembling perhaps a breakwater, as the audience enters, soon scrambles down to unfold his tale, his lanky frame just filling out his Adidas sweats and casual shirts. The tale begins (yawn) with the miracle of parental love: “She had us, both of us, absolutely round her finger,” he says of his then-newborn daughter, echoing eye-glazing monologues from parents the world over. (“A Life” ends on almost the same maudlin note.)
But there is a fillip of novelty: The “us” in that quote is not the doting parents (well, one is), but rather Alex and his father-in-law, an ex-soldier who does not, by Alex’s description, seem the type to dissolve into a puddle of warm water at a glance from a baby girl.
“Sea Wall” takes its name from a structure that — well, I can’t remember, some sort of oceanic barrier. It is located in the south of France where Alex’s father-in-law has a home and where, as the years pass, the family – which includes Alex’s daughter Lucy and his wife Helen — regularly vacations.
Sturridge’s Alex is a modestly successful but hardly ambitious photographer and, by his own account, a crier, although he says this sheepishly, and indeed seems the kind of backslapping guy you’d share a pint and a laugh with but who you wouldn’t expect to burst into tears at an episode of “ER,” as he admits to doing. But as the story darkens — without much deepening — Alex’s casual, rambling delivery is occasionally interrupted by spasms of barely suppressed emotion, as if he is fighting the urge to cry, or perhaps more accurately desperately searching for the now-lost ability to cry.
To Stephens’ credit, even as the story reaches its climax the writing doesn’t strain for effects, or for false profundity or unnatural lyricism. (Although Alex does casually mention that, as we have probably noticed, he has “a hole running through the center” of his stomach, symbolically speaking.) On the other hand, if you don’t reach for effects, you probably won’t achieve them either, and “Sea Wall,” despite its fundamentally tragic (albeit generally predictable) ending, never accrues anything resembling a captivating dramatic focus or arc. Sturridge is a tremendously likable actor — he has wide experience onstage — but an actor’s vivid presence isn’t really a substitute for compelling drama.
Payne’s “A Life” has a brisker tempo, with Gyllenhaal’s Abe at times frantically grabbing us by the metaphorical lapels as he tells his own tale of the anxieties and absurdities of impending fatherhood, and at precisely the same time the sorrows of being the child of an aging and ailing parent. His eyes often burn with bright surges of feeling as he jumps between the stories of his wife’s roller coaster of a pregnancy and the gradual failing of his father as he succumbs to heart trouble.
Payne, too, mostly eschews overripe writing: Abe’s story, like Alex’s, is full of mundane details and casual asides, the occasional joke (“Hey Siri, what the fuck is a TENS machine?”). Still, Abe does occasionally toss in some quasi-philosophical observation, as when he says, “I read somewhere that being born is to risk death.” (A more accurate observation would be that being born is guaranteeing death.)
Like Sturridge, Gyllenhaal is fine company, and his natural warmth, which takes the form at times of a pent-up energy that seems to fly off him in waves, keeps the pace reasonably taut and the suspense — will the birth go well, and will Abe’s father ailments ultimately end in his death? — on the boil long enough to keep the material from palling.
But while both shows have been subtly directed by Carrie Cracknell, neither the actors nor the director can excavate much rich feeling from the essentially pedestrian nature of the writing. True, both subtly engage with universal truths about human experience, namely its fragility and its inevitable trials, alongside the life-changing pleasures of being embraced by, and creating, a family. And both share the same minor-key appeal, bringing alive the voices of the characters effectively. But universal truths, unless conveyed in inspired artistic form, can become bland banalities. Neither play brings anything in the way of fresh perspective or soul-shaking revelation to their familiar subject matter.
You might, in fact, call them the theatrical equivalent of bacon and eggs. With a side of stardust.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated one of Gyllenhaal’s film credits.
“Sea Wall/A Life” opened at the Hudson Theatre on Thurs., Aug. 8, 2019.
Creative: “Sea Wall” Written by Simon Stephens; Original music: Stuart Earl. “A Life”: Written by Nick Payne; Original music: Stuart Earl. Directed by Carrie Cracknell. Scenic Design by Laura Jellinek; Costume Design by Kaye Voyce and Christopher Peterson; Lighting Design by Guy Hoare; Sound Design by Daniel Kluger; Projection Design by Luke Halls.
Producers: Nine Stories, Ambassador Theatre Group, Seaview Productions, Benjamin Lowy Productions, LFG Theatrical, Audible, Gavin Kalin Productions, Glass Half Full Productions, Jacob Langfelder, Brian Moreland, Roth-Manella Productions, Salman Vienn Al-Rashid Friends, SLS Theatricals and Teresa Tsai; Produced in association with Dunetz Restieri Productions, Morwin Schmookler, Jane & Mark Wilf and The Public Theater.
Cast: Tom Sturridge; Jake Gyllenhaal.