Major themes, minor plays. That’s what’s on tap in Simon Stephens’ 2008 work Sea Wall with Tom Sturridge alongside Nick Payne’s new play A Life with Jake Gyllenhaal. At the Public Theater through March 31, the solo shows add up to a deftly acted but not all that memorable double bill.
Each roughly 45-minute monologue is a meditation on big, fraught matters – chiefly, birth and death, and parents and children. The plays are best appreciated by not knowing too much in advance. Hence, no spoilers.
While the plays don’t overlap in terms of characters, they are companions thematically and structurally. Stephens (Punk Rock, with Sturridge) and Payne (Constellations, with Gyllenhaal) both take curvy, fragmented, non-linear approaches as a storyteller reflects on the delicate, precarious and often painful nature of life.
Sturridge and Gyllenhaal start out the same way, as directed by Carrie Cracknell. Both fiddle with the lights, stage business that backfires. It underlines the fact that although the plays are thoughtful, intelligent and at times harrowing, they don’t illuminate well-worn topics. A haze of the familiar hangs in the air. And while both actors are naturals on stage as well as with these writers, the venue does them no favors. The large space swallows them up, and that is deadly to intimacy.