This past Sunday (September 29), the Broadway production of “Sea Wall/A Life” concluded its run at the Hudson Theatre. The new play, which consists of two separate, thematically connected monologues, starred Tom Sturridge in “Sea Wall,” written by Tony-winner Simon Stephens (“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”), and Jake Gyllenhaal in “A Life,” penned by Nick Payne, whose 2015 play “Constellations” brought the actor to Broadway for the first time.
Directed by Carrie Cracknell in her Broadway debut, this limited engagement of “Sea Wall/A Life” followed an earlier, successful run with the same cast at the Public Theater. The two monologues both grapple with family, love, and loss: in “Sea Wall,” Alex (Sturridge) describes the tragedy that befalls him while in the south of France; in “A Life,” Abe (Gyllenhaal) describes the death of his father and the birth of his daughter.
Back when “Sea Wall/A Life” opened on August 8, critics were divided. Barbara Schuler (Newsday) applauds both “gut-wrenching monologues,” which boast not only “a powerful focus on love, loss and the circle of life,” but also “riveting” performances. Laura Collins-Hughes (New York Times) names the play a Critic’s Pick, calling “Sea Wall” “exquisite” and praising Sturridge for delivering a “captivating” performance; she finds “A Life,” however, “erratic.”
Less favorably, Adam Feldman (Time Out) gives the production three-out-of-five stars, but calls it “an uneven evening.” He raves about “Sea Wall,” deeming it a “marvel of compression and detail,” lauding Sturridge as “gorgeously believable and personable,” and giving kudos to Cracknell’s “graceful direction.” But he agrees with Collins-Hughes about “A Life,” writing that even though Gyllenhaal is “likable,” he “seems perversely self-centered and generic.”
Based on these critics’s reviews, Sturridge seems to have an advantage over Gyllenhaal come Tony season. Past history would seem to support that prognostication, too, as Sturridge previously earned a Tony nomination in the Best Play Actor category in 2013 for “Orphans,” while Gyllenhaal has yet to earn the well-deserved honor.
These two performers may have been on par in the nominations tally had the 2017 revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” which featured Gyllenhaal’s brilliant, critically-acclaimed turn in the lead role, not been withdrawn from consideration by the producers for financial considerations.
Regardless of the show’s critical reception, productions that shutter so early in the Broadway season rarely perform well at the Tony Awards in any category, with the occasional exception. Last season’s “The Boys in the Band,” for example, closed on August 11 (7 weeks earlier in the season than “Sea Wall/A Life” this year) and still managed to pick up two Tony nominations and win the Best Revival trophy ten months after it shuttered.
This will nevertheless be an uphill battle for “Sea Wall/A Life” as at least 10 additional new Broadway plays will open between now and the Tony eligibility deadline. In such a crowded year, the show and its performers would need an extraordinary groundswell of support amongst the small pool of members of the Tony nominating committee. If “Sea Wall/A Life” does defy the odds and land a Best Play nomination, Gyllenhaal would land his first Tony nomination even if he misses out in Best Actor because he’s also a producer of the show through his production company “Nine Stories.”