Alright, I’m partial I’ll admit it, ever since securing this wondrous interview with the man back in 2017 in Cannes. But now on stage performing in the second half of ‘Sea Wall / A Life’ which played this winter at the Public Theater before moving to the Hudson for its Broadway run, the man does blow every other actor of his generation out of the water.
How, you ask?
Well, first of all, when a performer can get you to laugh through your free flowing tears before plunging you once again in the depth of despair, that rollercoaster ride he manages to take you on is called sheer genius. It is what I live for at the movies, but in a dark theater near Times Square, sitting in the second row, with no one occupying the seat in front of me, it takes on a whole new dimension. For fifty minutes I felt like I was listening to a dear friend telling me the story of his father’s death and the birth of his child. He was there, Gyllenhaal, in the spotlight but I was in the hot seat too. My energy was driving his performance, as was the collective power of all of us who sat in that theater on that magical night.
As we arrived at the theater for their soft opening night, audience members were greeted by photographers for JR’s ‘Inside Out’ project, who asked if they could take our photo to add to the wall in the back of the Hudson. It was fun to channel one’s inner performer before sliding into my seat, which was simply phenomenal. As I sat down, I didn’t immediately notice Gyllenhaal sitting at the piano on the stage. It’s an interesting feeling to settle in, with all the mannerisms and rituals that entails, and then realize you’ve been part of the introduction of the performance. The stage and Gyllenhaal “costume” totally minimalistic, in fact it seemed like the back of the theater had been left bare-walled, with the exposed brick serving as backdrop. But on closer inspection, little details like moss growing in the cracks and the too-broken-down-for-its-own-good piano proved the presence of an art director, Laura Jellinek. Phenomenally understated and perfect setting for the outstanding performances to come.
Not long after Gyllenhaal left the stage casually, the other actor performing in this duo of monologues came in, holding what looked like a Mary Poppins bag. Tom Sturridge has a bit of a young Ralph Fiennes quality, which of course makes him yummy right away. His ‘Sea Wall’, monologue, written by Simon Stephens is a hard piece for an actor. It requires the kind of quality that comes naturally to Gyllenhaal — the sad, comic, tragic connection which needs to be maintained throughout to feel realistic. Yet the not as seasoned Sturridge did a beautiful job. Out of the giant bag, he pulled out souvenirs of his life, before tragedy struck, as well as something to drink and eat — which he downed sitting facing the audience, observing us as if we were his private, giant fish bowl. His British accent works well with the story and both the lighting and sound design on ‘Sea Wall’ are divine! When Sturridge talks about being underwater, the audience is right there with him, seeing the fish, hearing the sounds of the depth of the ocean. Kudos to Guy Hoare for lighting and Daniel Kruger for the sound design.
For the second half, ‘A Life’, written by Nick Payne, Gyllenhaal spends fifty minutes in the spotlight, literally. Well, apart from a run around the orchestra with his iPhone flashlight turned on, to show us how he looked for something he’d lost. Laughter and tears, life and death, being a son as opposed to feeling like a father, he goes through it all, explores everything and leaves the audience wanting much more. Personally, I needed a moment to regroup before joining the real world again. i have never felt so lucky as I did watching this play, in this moment, in this city — my beloved NYC.
‘Sea Wall / A Life’ plays at the Hudson Theater through September 29th, 2019 and is directed by Carrie Cracknell. Which is just icing on the cake from where I’m standing, because I’m all about supporting more women directors!
Oh, and make sure you follow the production Insta account, which is updated daily with priceless gems like the image above.