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'Sea Wall/A Life': Jake Gyllenhaal, Tom Sturridge riveting in stirring drama of life and loss

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a new father in "Sea

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a new father in "Sea Wall/A Life" on Broadway. Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

WHAT "Sea Wall/A Life"

WHEN | WHERE Through Sept. 29, Hudson Theatre, 141 W. 44th St.

INFO From $69; 855-801-5876, thehudsonbroadway.com

BOTTOM LINE A move to Broadway doesn't lessen the impact of these gut-wrenching monologues.

Loss can be sudden and tragic, it can be agonizing and drawn out. You get a heavy dose of each in "Sea Wall/A Life," the twin bill of monologues starring Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal that just opened at the Hudson Theatre after an acclaimed run at the Public Theater in the winter.

There's an obvious question that comes up in moving this production to a Broadway house with more than triple the seats: Can it can retain the intimate connection of the two short plays, each with a powerful focus on love, loss and the circle of life, that are essentially conversations with the audience? The short answer, for the most part, is yes. 

The setting is virtually the same — a spare, two-level brick facade (set by Laura Jellinek), where Gyllenhaal sits at a piano staring intently at the arriving audience. He leaves after a while, then Sturridge wanders on, fiddling with the lights before launching with little fanfare into his opening lines.

And the performances remain riveting. In the first piece, "Sea Wall" by Simon Stephens, a Tony winner for his adaptation of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," Sturridge plays Alex, a young father who has recently suffered an unspeakable and sudden loss. He hits certain lines harder than he did at the Public, and while that occasional overkill dilutes his gut-wrenching revelations, it by no means negates the overall impact. Alex wanders the stage, fidgety and intense in his rumpled sweatpants, as he searches not just for an understanding of this horrific tragedy, but also the very existence of God. 

Gyllenhaal, as new father Abe, is physically more static if no less dynamic in "A Life" by Nick Payne ("Constellations"), standing in the harsh glare of a single spotlight for most of the piece. There are lighter moments here as Abe, in khakis and a denim shirt, reflects on the lingering death of his father and the birth of his daughter. The rapid-fire delivery runs the stories together, requiring close attention lest you wonder why a newborn requires a pacemaker. The glued-to the-spot performance gets a lift when Abe leaves the stage to race around the theater in search of the batteries he forgot to pack in his hospital go-bag. 

These two actors truly inhabit their characters, to be expected after playing them for so long, but under the continued direction of Carrie Cracknell, they also seem to be going deeper into their explorations, especially those regarding what it means to be a father. Abe talks about feeling not ready to be a dad, his piercing gaze into the house suggesting he’s expressing a sentiment shared by many. 

But seeing the play again after just six months, it’s the universal nature of loss and random tragedy that will keep me awake. This line from Alex pretty much says it all: "If this can happen, anything can happen." 
 

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