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New York City Theater

"Sea Wall / A Life"
Public Theater

Nothing less than life, death and the (non?)existence of God permeate the mesmerizing double bill of “Sea Wall” and “A Life.” Filled with existential questions that stumped even playwright Samuel Beckett in his “Waiting for Godot,” these two monologues ask questions but give no answers. The evening, beautifully acted by Tom  Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal, is literally haunting.

The first part, “Sea Wall” is by Simon Stephens, whose “Heisenberg” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” were Broadway hits. It concerns a tragedy during a vacation an English couple takes in southern France.

Re-living that time, a character named Alex wants to deaden his senses, it seems, by drinking beer, eating candy and ambling about like a defeated zombie. The title refers to an improbable wall that chokes off the sea and suddenly ends in darkness.

He takes us back to before his wife gives birth to their daughter, then forward to further vacations in France. Along the way, he debates questions about God: Does He have a beard? Does He have long white hair? The questions reflect those in “Godot” where the tramps ask Mr. Godot’s young messenger if his boss has a beard and of what color. “Yes,” answers the boy to the first question and “I think it’s white” to the second.

Alex’s own search ends with “Just because we don’t know, doesn’t mean we won’t know. We just don’t know yet.” Despite this epistemological dilemma, Alex is well aware that letting himself go won’t soothe his terrible hurt.

As Sturridge plays him, the hurt, likened to “a hole in the center of my stomach,” does not defeat him, not yet. Sturridge’s Alex is a man holding on for dear life. He won’t even tell us what, as he describes it, is the cruelest remark he ever made to someone. We can guess but, most of all, we can feel.

We feel even more deeply in “A Life” by Nick Payne whose “Constellations” and “Incognito” were successful (the former with Gyllenhaal). Yet the sadness is punctuated by humor.

Gyllenhaal’s character, Abe, is a new father. But he’s also a son. Juxtaposing birth and death, spilling one into the other, we’re into “Godot” territory again where Vladimir says “astride of a grave and a difficult birth . . . the grave-digger puts on the forceps.” Abe tries to balance those life events, as if weighing them on a scale.  We can plan for birth, he says, not for death.

In fact, there are three kinds of death: physical, emotional  and eternal when names are spoken for the very last time. For all his joy at his daughter’s birth, it’s his father’s death which lingers. ”I miss him too much,” says Abe, “and I don’t know how to give her what she wants.”

Gyllenhaal is such a versatile actor, venturing from plays to musicals, that his giving Abe touches of humor is not unexpected. He’s a man trying to puzzle out how  the tragedy of death and the comedy of life intertwine. Intense, kind, self-aware, he can make a line like “to be born is to risk death” something both painful and pragmatic in the same breath.

On Laura Jellinek’s minimalist set, director Carrie Cracknell’s unfussy production is right at home. Relying on the theater’s strength, its language, she creates an evening where her characters and the audience want to understand what it’s all about anyway.

--David A. Rosenberg
March 5, 2019

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