Monday, March 11, 2019

Sea Wall/A Life: Putting It Together

Jake Gyllenhaal in Sea Wall/A Life. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Sea Wall and A Life are a pair of monologues, each about forty-five minutes in length, that form a double bill currently at the Public Theatre. The first, written by Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), features the English actor Tom Sturridge as Alex, a photographer who loses his eight-year-old daughter Lucy during a family visits to father-in-law’s oceanside summer home in France. The second, written by Nick Payne (Constellations) and acted by Jake Gyllenhaal, links the deterioration and death of the father of the protagonist, Abe, to the birth of his child. Clearly a strenuous set of workouts for the two actors, they’re also an emotional endurance test for the audience. That they combine to form a satisfying evening in the theatre is less a result of the themes they have in common (loss and grief, the relationship between a parent and a child) than of the ways in which they contrast each other. (An incidental commonality between the two halves of the double bill: both reference the TV show ER.) One is set in Europe, the other – in this production, at least – in America; one is a spare single story, the other a cross-hatching of two stories; one is a portrait of the walking wounded, the other the attempt of a man to find meaning by connecting the two essential narratives of his adult life. So although A Life inevitably echoes Sea Wall, their distinctness from each other suggests the hugeness and variety of the experiences of death and of parenthood.

Sea Wall is a lovely piece, poetic and mysterious, and the parts that Stephens has omitted from the story – like the specific nature of Alex’s explosion at his father-in-law in the wake of the tragedy – underline the Freudian idea of a personal horror so profound that even in relating it, Alex, has to steer himself away from some of the details, as well as the Beckettian idea that words are inadequate to convey it. One of the high points in the writing is a moment when Alex suddenly (before he has revealed the origin of his grief) describes himself as having a hole through the middle of his body, presenting it as if it were a medical oddity rather than a metaphor; I don’t imagine I’m the only theatregoer who thought of the verse in Paul Simon’s “Graceland” about how “losing love is like a window in your heart / Everybody sees you’re blown apart / Everybody sees the wind blow.”

The problem with this first half of the bill is Sturridge, an actor of limited expressive range. Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, is superb. His reading of the second monologue, which marks his third stage collaboration with Payne – the first, If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, was in the 2012-2013 Roundabout Theatre season, and the second was the Broadway production of Constellations – is a model of both vivid, in-the-moment acting and assured technique. That is, it’s technique that is so relaxed that it looks like anything but technique. The play itself is mixed: some of the descriptive detail has the surprise and inspired rightness of first-rate short-story writing, like his observation that his expired father on his hospital bed looks like he’s wrapped in a purple velvet onesie (which, naturally, ties his death to the childbirth), while other sections feel overly familiar, like Abe’s calling his father’s cell phone after his death in order to hear his voice again. And though the juxtaposition of the two episodes makes both psychological and dramatic sense and builds to a powerful conclusion, the omission of any bridge between them as Abe moves back and forth between them is continually jarring – you get what Payne is after, but the effect feels theatrical rather than organic. Gyllenhaal’s acting minimizes these problems, or at least transcends them. I’ve seen him live four times – in all of the Nick Payne plays and as Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George – and though not one of these performances has been less than fine, each has been a little better than the last. Meanwhile he balances these increasingly frequent stage appearances with film work of the caliber of Nightcrawler and last year’s The Sisters Brothers. Prolific as he is, these days it’s unwise to miss one of his projects.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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