Despite a shapeless green cardigan and black sweatpants, Mr. Gyllenhaal is unconvincing as a zhlub. Still, he is priceless with pressured dialogue. From a scenario that builds panic artificially, he mines surprisingly genuine humor, and eventually pathos, by focusing on Abe’s avoidance rather than expression of pain. Unable to communicate real feelings directly — he keeps telling us what he should have said as if that counted — he’s like a mouse in a maze of emotions, banging into walls and instantly changing course.
But if “A Life” (not to be confused with Adam Bock’s terrific play of the same name) suggests that failures of communication are the human condition and a source of unhappiness, it does not rise to the level of tragedy, modern or otherwise. What eventually happens, though sad, is common and natural, involving neither gross unfairness nor a meaningful challenge to faith.
It may be that Mr. Payne, who played the role in the 2013 production, was too close to the material to let it go where it needed to. (He has said that the story is somewhat autobiographical.) Still, as he did in “Constellations,” which posited an ever-branching multiverse of outcomes to a basic romantic premise, he finds ingenious ways to let structure compensate for character development. Here, the converging plot shows us just how much stuff — failure and redemption, delusion and emergency — gets funneled into a life, and how little control we have over any of it.
I’m not sure that adds up to much, and it seems to me that Ms. Cracknell, whose pacing and use of the stage are otherwise superbly delicate, may have been compensating for that when she appended a schmaltzy (albeit effective) coda.
But even if “A Life” is a bit of a comedown from “Sea Wall,” the two make smart companions. Certainly they are a model of showbiz synergy; the two actors are currently appearing together in the Netflix movie “Velvet Buzzsaw,” and Mr. Gyllenhaal previously starred in “Constellations” on Broadway.
The monologues also speak to each other. Though they were written independently — “Sea Wall” originated at the Bush Theater in London in 2008 — the Public’s production, marking the New York premiere of the combo platter, makes it seem as if they were designed to be bookends. Certainly the performances give you plenty to ponder in showing how we now read life, with or without fate, as everyone’s tragedy.