The Cell, the Spell and the Mystery of ‘Sea Wall/A Life’

The Cell, the Spell and the Mystery of ‘Sea Wall/A Life’

And I kept flashing on what the usher at the Hudson had said when we’d taken our seats at the matinee. After politely instructing us to turn off our cellphones (so far, so normal), he added something about not wanting an Amber Alert — an emergency bulletin about a missing child — to intrude.

Even at the time, it struck me as odd. But I also wondered if it was newly normal now.

Because this was early August. Only one night before, a backfiring motorcycle had caused a panic in Times Square, with pedestrians seeking shelter in theaters from what they thought was gunfire. A few weeks earlier, shows were disrupted by a flash-flood warning coming over multiple audience members’ phones. So was this was just the Hudson staff taking extra care to insulate the performance from the anxiety outside?

“Sea Wall/A Life” is somewhat unconventional anyway. Mr. Sturridge is onstage, in character, well before the play begins. Even earlier, Mr. Gyllenhaal spends a while up there. With actors already in the room, a recorded turn-your-phones-off reminder would disrupt the atmosphere.

Could it be that the show, consequently, was more likely to be riddled with interruptions by noise-making devices, and that “It’s O.K.” was Mr. Sturridge’s smart go-to response? If so, that wouldn’t make his gentle skill at keeping the audience with him, phones notwithstanding, any less extraordinary.

But if it was fabricated, this precarious moment so close to the finish of such a delicate monologue, it would be sheer recklessness — like building a fragile castle from the finest beach sand, then threatening to kick it over just as the tide approaches, about to lap it away.

If the Amber Alert was fake, too, that would be worst of all, amping our sense of real-world danger in service of a play that in no way needs that kind of aid.

The more I thought about it, the more tangled I got. I trusted nothing — which, granted, might just be a sign that I’m a journalist. But underneath the skepticism, something else nagged at me: the sense that my incertitude was a metastasis of our jittery, gaslit world, where baseline reality is increasingly in dispute.

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