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Broadway Play Review—“Sea Wall/A Life” with Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal

Sea Wall/A Life

One-acts written by Simon Stephens & Nick Payne; directed by Carrie Cracknell

Performances through September 29, 2019


Jake Gyllenhaal in A Life (photo: Joan Marcus)


Grief is at the center of the one-acts that make up Sea Wall/A Life, as two fathers try to articulate their grieving and possible next steps towards healing. But neither play delves too deeply into these subjects, instead staying on the surface as the protagonists wear their emotions on their sleeves.


Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall introduces Alex, who regularly leaves England with his wife and young daughter to visit his father-in-law Arthur, who’s living comfortably in the south of France and who debates the existence of God with Alex. When an unspeakable tragedy occurs at the beach near Arthur’s home, whether God even exists becomes moot. 


In Nick Payne’s A Life, Abe is a reluctant father dealing with his own father’s dying. Unlike in Sea Wall, there’s no sudden tragic event, but Payne creates a kind of crude suspense by having Abe simultaneously describe his wife’s giving birth and his father’s final moments. 


Despite moving passages in both plays, both men’s stories of family loss are dramatized in the most contrived way possible, even if, in Sea Wall, Stephens’ description of the tragedy at the beach is chillingly poetic. Payne’s A Life even drags in John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which director Carrie Cracknell makes sure we hear a snippet of on the piano that has been sitting on the stage for the entire show in an impotent anticlimax. 


Most problematic, however, is that Alex and Abe are simply not very interesting characters. Although the unseen wives and children are ciphers, Abe’s father and Alex’s father-in-law are more fascinating than the men telling their stories. 


The performances can’t be faulted. Tom Sturridge (Alex) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Abe) disappear fully into these men, and even turn the staging’s cutesy touches—playing around with the house and stage lights, an awkward-looking ladder up which Sturridge ascends to the set’s second level, Gyllenhaal finally sitting down at that onstage piano—into moments that charm the audience...but as Sturridge and Gyllenhaal, not Alex and Abe. These one-acts work far better as actors’ exercises than as fully-realized plays. 


Sea Wall/A Life

Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street, New York, NY

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