By Tulis McCall
From the nanno-second that Alex (Tom Sturridge) begins to speak in Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall at the Public Theater, we know it is going to be a bad day at Black Rock. Or Mudville. Or wherever it is this story-teller is located as he talks to us. Ditto for Abe (Jake Gyllenhaal) in A Life by Nick Payne. In the latter there are a few laughs well-played by Gyllenhaal, but on the whole, it is a gloomy evening.
These two characters are navel gazing. Alex is reliving how life rose up and flipped on its back in a moment. What he was counting on is no longer on the table and he is having to stitch life together with the flimsiest of threads. I’m holding my entire head together. The skin and the shell of me. I’m falling absolutely inside myself. But you can see that.
In many ways this is a brave piece that compels us to watch, the way that videos go viral, or crowds gather to watch a fire. Except here the actual event is the man himself, reporting in from the front where nothing good happened. He is a survivor and that truth will not let him have one moment of peace. How to bad things happen to good people. Who planned this mess? Where is God in the mix? Is there a God, and if so, why doesn’t s/he make an appearance and set things aright?
The second man, Abe, has been swept up in an emotional vortex that involves being a son and becoming a father. He is equipped for neither and makes no effort to convince us otherwise. Abe is not so much a participant in life as he is a witness. People come and go around him, and he does his best to pitch in and be a good sport, but it is only when he is more or less left to his own devices that the elements begin to click together in his extreme favor. As the elements kick in he is overwhelmed by the serendipity of life. He cannot help but consider how he is part of a majestic rhythm. No matter what he does there are certain inescapable truths like memory, and a child’s gaze, and fatherhood that comes without training wheels. …for some reason I start thinking about that moment, some time in the future, when our names are said, spoken aloud, for the very last time…And I’m thinking to myself and so fuck it I decide to say it aloud: Mary.
Each of these might be compelling as short stories. Might be. I am not certain I would get though them, however, because there is not enough meat on these bones to keep me interested. The same points are made over and over ad infinitum. This evening could easily be titled Bemoaned and Befuddled. Sea Wall begins to dig deeper just as the monologue wraps up. Prior to that it is a man picking at the scab of a devastating event. We all do that, to be sure. But making a piece of theatre out of it is a whole ‘nother thing. A Life never achieves lift-off. One thing happens, and another. Then a bunch of things happen at the same time – as is often the way – and then there is a moment that is sublime. Not a strong or even intriguing piece of theatre.
I have never seen Mr. Sturridge’s work that I recall, and I was left wondering if there was anything he could have done as a performer to improve his tale. I don’t know. My Gyllenhaal is charming and sincere and believable. Not a stretch there. Both characters are supremely self-effacing, which may have been due to the guidance of their director Carrie Cracknell. Would that there had been other colors added to this palette. Life has plenty to offer up.
As it is, the evening is like a bowl of oatmeal that initially seemed like a good idea but was left out on the counter just long enough to lose its flavor not to mention its raison d’être.
SEA WALL / A LIFE – Written by Simon Stephens and Nick Payne respectively, and directed by Carrie Cracknell,
Scenic design by Laura Jellinek, costume design by Kaye Voyce, lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski, sound design by Fabian Obispo, and original music by Stuart Earl.
Public Theater Partner, Public Supporter, and Member tickets are available now. Full price tickets, starting at $110, can be accessed by calling (212) 967-7555, visiting www.publictheater.org, or in person at the Taub Box Office at The Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street.
The performance schedule is Tuesday through Friday at 8:00 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. (There is no 2:00 p.m. performance on Saturday, February 2; Sunday, February 3; and Saturday, February 9. There is no 8:00 p.m. performance on Sunday, February 10; and Friday, February 15. There is an added performance on Monday, February 11 at 8:00 p.m.).
The open captioning performance will be at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, February 16. The audio described performance will be at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, February 23.