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'Sea Wall/A Life' review: Powerful monologues, powerful stars

Jake Gyllenhaal plays an expectant father recalling his

Jake Gyllenhaal plays an expectant father recalling his dad's death in "A Life" at the Public Theater. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT "Sea Wall/A Life"

WHEN | WHERE Through March 31, The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

INFO From $110; 212-967-7555, publictheater.org

BOTTOM LINE Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal perform shattering monologues that will tear your heart out.

The evening is intimate and shattering — two fine actors baring their souls on an almost empty stage at the Public Theater.

Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal appear together in Netflix's now-streaming movie "Velvet Buzzsaw," and they augment  that performance with a return to the New York stage in two raw monologues that will tear your heart out. 

Sturridge, last seen here in 2017 in Broadway's "1984," opens the evening in "Sea Wall" by Simon Stephens ("The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time"), in which he plays a young father facing unbearable loss. Sitting onstage as the audience enters, he pours a beer and sifts through a stack of photographs, the overwhelming sadness unmistakable before the lights ever go down.  

Speaking so softly he’s often hard to hear (especially when the subway rumbles through), Sturridge gives an intense, emotional performance.

When he says people tell him "you appear to have a great big hole running right through the middle of you,” you can all but see it.

There are some lighter moments when Gyllenhaal takes over in the second piece, "A Life" by Nick Payne ("Constellations," also with Gyllenhaal). This is the story of another young father, one who's preparing for the birth of his first child as he recalls the death of his father some years back.

Gyllenhaal, seen on Broadway two years ago in "Sunday in the Park with George," pingpongs from present to past without missing a beat. But as funny as the descriptions of childbirth classes and early labor might be (you have to see Gyllenhaal leave the stage to forage through an entire row in search of batteries), Payne’s play, originally called "The Art of Dying," poses some serious reflections on the circle of life. Why, this new dad asks, do we prepare so elaborately for birth and "yet so appallingly and haphazardly for death? We’re only gonna die once, why not make the most of it?" 

Director Carrie Cracknell wisely gives each actor room to simply have a conversation with the audience. Sturridge highlights his by frequent pauses and stunning moments in which he simply stares into space. Gyllenhaal is more frenetic (in a good way) as he segues between the two storylines.

Each has questions. Gyllenhaal wonders if he will ever be able to love his child the way his father loved him. Sturridge ponders the eternal question of life after death. But it's one of his lines that seems to summarize the power of both plays. "If this can happen,” he says with considerable incredulity, "then anything can happen.“

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