When I was in the tenth grade, my English teacher asked us to list on the chalkboard the virtues traditionally associated with literary heroes. Our class managed to identify nine or ten candidates. Somehow, though, we neglected the cardinal one: courage.
This same failure afflicted the authors of the pair of monologues presented by the actors Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal in the just-opened Broadway show Sea Wall/A Life, at the Hudson Theatre through September 29. Sturridge and Gyllenhaal’s performances are superb, and the two one-act plays are hardly dull. But, if you find wimpiness off-putting, you may indeed be repelled. The two characters telling us their stories are about as manly as Carole Channing, as much self-possessed authority figures as were Spanky and Buckwheat in the Our Gang movies. If they had been asked to lead the first wave onto the Normandy beaches in 1944, they would have begged off, explaining to their superiors that this would be impossible in the absence of greater quantities of tanning lotion. If the production is a cultural marker—and it must be, to some degree—it is an indictment of the generation represented by the playwrights, Simon Stephens and Nick Payne.
The less talented but more popular of these dramatists is Simon Stephens. He is best known for his adaptation of the Mark Haddon mystery novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the off-beat story of an autistic boy who discovers that his father has killed a neighbor’s pet and concealed from him that his mother is alive. A worldwide phenomenon, it ran on Broadway for almost two years. Like nearly all of Stephens’s work, it is derivative. Since 2012, Stephens has “premiered” his versions of two plays by Chekhov, one by Brecht, one by Ibsen, and one by Jan Peter Gerrits. His most-produced work of his own invention was the dopey and slight two-hander rom-com Heisenberg. In the first of the two plays presented at the Hudson Theatre, Sea Wall, he is again offering us something entirely his own. But, as it turns out, he is only capable of cheap manipulation and banal thoughts. Especially tawdry is the recurring question of whether a terrible misfortune involving an adorable child says anything about the existence of God.
Stephens and his director Carrie Cracknell have an ace in the hole, however: their star, Tom Sturridge. Essaying the part of the ineffectual, almost sexless protagonist, Sturridge comes on stage in a track suit, t-shirt, and sneakers. A catalog photographer, he is son-in-law to an intrepid, conservative British army officer whom he holds in high regard, different though they are. As Stephens’s sympathies seem to be principally with Sturridge’s character, he manages to arrange his trite story in a fashion that leaves the “hero” blameless and the father-in-law at fault. Sturridge is sensational, though. He is compelling, vulnerable, and affecting: doubtless, a major talent.
Stephens’s tale is connected to the one presented after the intermission—A Life, by Nick Payne—by their mutual concern with the emotional legacy of a death in the family. But the second monologue is the work of a genuine playwright.
Payne first attracted notice in the United States with the 2015 Manhattan Theatre Club production of his play Constellations, which also starred Jake Gyllenhaal. That was the work of a clever, imaginative, and sometimes quite funny author. Even so, like Stephens’s Sea Wall, A Life relies upon a death in the family to affect its audience. Neither writer seems comfortable with the goal of writing a genuine tragedy, a story of the destruction of a great man by faults of his own character. Rather, we are asked for tears by melodramatic contrivance. Moreover, the language of both plays is so relentlessly contemporary that they will inevitably date quickly. In a sense, we are being provided with products of and for a disposable society.
This is not to say that the second half of Sea Wall/A Life isn’t amusing and adroit. It is, and Gyllenhaal is inspired in rendering Payne’s story of a young man who must accept his father’s passing and come to terms, however ineffectually, with the recent birth of his daughter.
When I had seen Gyllenhaal in the past, I thought that he had lacked a sense of humor. But, as the current production shows, this is not so. He had simply chosen to play his other roles with a lack of self-awareness, and his comedic talents are readily in evidence in A Life. Indeed, although I saw a matinee of the show, there was hardly a laugh to be had that Gyllenhaal failed to garner. Playing the part of a hapless, love-besotted husband who describes the many absurdities of Lamaze classes and discussions of baby-naming, Gyllenhaal had the audience in stitches.
If your income is such that spending sixty dollars—or even a hundred and twenty—for a seat at a Broadway show is something you won’t think twice about, then Sea Wall/A Life may be worth seeing. After all, the actors are startlingly good. But it says much that’s unwelcome that the show has been staged on Broadway. It is yet more evidence that producers care more about big-name talent and cast size than they do about the quality of a script.
And there is also the matter of the soft, spineless nature of the “heroes.” At one point in A Life, Jake Gyllenhaal’s character remarks about his father’s passing, “I am a son, not a father.” This is false. While the actor may not yet have progeny, the play’s protagonist does. He is simply unable and unwilling to locate himself in the precincts of adulthood. It is hard to imagine that such a play could have been staged two generations ago. The character is an implicit judgment on our culture. As Lermontov might have put it, he is a hero of our time.