Both plays deal with young husbands who are coping with new fatherhood as well as their new responsibilities and their relationships with the dominant male figures in their lives. In Stephens’ Sea Wall, Sturridge speaks admiringly of his father-in-law, while in Payne’s A Life, Gyllenhaal speaks with love of his own father. Both men are madly in love with their wives who they could not consider living without. These plays are ultimately tragedies of the accidental kind, events that one has no control over and cannot see coming. The double bill is performed on a basically empty stage with a brick wall behind (designed by Laura Jellinek), on which Peter Kaczorowski’s poetic and atmospheric lighting is a kind of additional onstage character. Carrie Cracknell’s assured direction pilots both plays.
Although both playwrights have been writing for a number of years they both came to the attention of New York theatergoers in 2012, Stephens with Harper Regan at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater and Payne with If There Is I Haven’t Found it Yet at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre which starred Gyllenhaal in the first of his three plays by Payne to be produced in New York. Since then Stephens has seen his The Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Heisenberg on Broadway, winning the Tony Award for the former, as well as Punk Rock and On the Shore of the Wide World produced Off Broadway. Payne has had Constellations appear on Broadway courtesy of the Manhattan Theatre Club with Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson and his Incognito appear at MTC at New York City Center’s Stage I.
First up is British actor Tom Sturridge (1984 and Orphans on Broadway) in Stephens’ Sea Wall. As Alex, he tells us about how much he admires his fiancée’s father, later his father-in-law Arthur. Arthur is a former soldier who served in the British infantry from 1968 to 1984 reaching the rank of a lieutenant colonel. He then became a math teacher. Now in retirement he watches tennis and scuba dives off of his home in the eastern suburbs of Toulon, France, in a town called Carquerraine. When his daughter Lucy is born by emergency caesarean, Alex prays to God although he doesn’t know if he believes. Lucy becomes the apple of his eye but he doesn’t love his wife Helen any less.
Visiting Arthur in France annually from London during their holidays, Alex and Arthur discuss God and Arthur introduces him to scuba diving, the sea wall and its total darkness, which comes as quite a surprise to Alex. Originally scared by the large and tall Arthur, Lucy eventually comes to love him also. Alex’s life could not be more perfect. One year when they are visiting, Helen is out shopping at their favorite supermarket, while Arthur, Alex and Lucy go down to the cove near Arthur’s house. While Alex is swimming in the sea, Arthur is drying off and Lucy playing on the beach, unexpected tragedy strikes. Life is never the same again. Alex speaks of the cruelest thing he ever did to anyone but doesn’t tell us what it was – or does and it is not what we are expecting.
Sturridge tells his story in a hesitant, but straightforward unemotional fashion, as though he never quite finishes a thought, alternating between anecdotes of Arthur, Helen and Lucy. His flat delivery is such that we begin to feel a creeping terror of some catastrophe about to happen at any minute. Little by little, the intimacy of his story gets under our skin, and we feel we know him completely. His final pronouncement seems innocuous enough to be truly devastating. It is a gripping performance seemingly using the least effort to tell Alex’s tale. The title “Sea Wall” turns out to also be a metaphor for those things from which there is a sudden falling off into darkness.
As Abe, American actor Jake Gyllenhaal (Constellations, Sunday in the Park with George, Little Shop of Horrors) uses his own accent so that Payne’s play gives the impression that A Life takes place in the United States. Standing on stage very close to the audience, he tells us two alternating stories, the terminal illness of his father and the birth of his daughter Mary. When his wife tells him that she is pregnant he is elated, but fears he is not ready to be a father. He doesn’t know what to do as a teenager when his father tells him that he has a tingling in his arm.
Segueing between life and death, Abe’s monologue alternates between what becomes a heart condition and terminal illness for his father and the planning that goes into having a child today. Abe learns more than he wants to both about hospitals and how they treat terminal illnesses, refusing to tell the patient the truth by operating in “a culture of optimism,” as well as all the stages of preparing to have a child both for the mother and the father: classes they take together, items they have to buy, preparations to be made. As both the father’s illness spins out of control of what the doctors can do and his wife’s due date approaches, the tension speeds up like a train wreck about to happen. Cutting from one story to the other, creates a great deal of suspense as each story is left hanging until Abe comes back to it. When things seem to be going best, tragedy comes upon us almost blindly, no one at fault and with little to be done.
While Gyllenhaal is an expert stage actor, he seems here to want our approval, almost reaching out over the footlights to convince us of Abe’s worth. In this he is less effective than Sturridge who does nothing to try to charm us but just tells his story unembellished. However, Gyllenhaal makes the most of his opportunities, as if confiding in us those things we all have experienced and have in common. Abe’s love for both his father and his daughter are palpable without being stated in so many words. What is most obvious in A Life is how life takes us unawares when we feel least prepared to deal with it.
Sea Wall/A Life (through March 31, 2019)
The Public Theater
Newman Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes including one intermission