At their best, one-person plays have the intimacy and urgency of an encounter with someone who needs to get something off his or her chest, ideally portrayed by an actor who compels us to listen. Two such plays—Simon Stephens’s Sea Wall and Nick Payne’s A Life—open as a twin set next month at the Public Theater.

Under the direction of the smashing Carrie Cracknell, each is a short monologue that, beneath its spare surface, grapples with profound questions about life, death, and identity.

In A Life, Gyllenhaal plays a man struggling to reconcile his emotions surrounding the death of his father and the birth of his daughter. Originally titled The Art of Dying, the piece started as a monologue that Payne performed at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2013, in the aftermath of his own father’s death.

Gyllenhaal, who gave deeply felt performances in Payne’s earlier plays If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet and Constellations, spent the next four years begging the playwright to let him perform it. By the time he relented, Payne had become a father, and he, Cracknell, and Gyllenhaal worked together to bring A Life into its current form.

Gyllenhaal relishes the chance to perform something that feels so personal and vulnerable. “The nature of being alone onstage, as much as it might delight the 30 percent narcissist that I am, terrifies the other percentage,” he says. “At its best, it’s not a performance. There are no masks, no protection.”

Like Gyllenhaal, Sturridge feels a strong affinity for the author of the monologue he’s performing—in this case, Stephens (Harper Regan; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), in whose 2009 play Punk Rock he made his stage debut. “I love Simon for his lyricism and for his brutality,” Sturridge says, “and how the collision of those rather disparate things oddly always seems to spawn something entirely human.” In the beautifully wrought and utterly devastating Sea Wall, a photographer named Alex recounts a vacation in France with his wife and young daughter, during which he swims, argues about the existence of God with his father-in-law, and, after a terrifying glimpse of the abyss, has his life shattered in an instant.

A father with a young family of his own (he has a six-year-old daughter with Sienna Miller), Sturridge instantly identified with the narrator. His challenge, as he sees it, is whether to protect himself inside a character or expose himself. “If you ask me who Alex is, the answer that I don’t want to give, because I’m afraid of it, is ‘Me,’ ” he says. “At the same time, I know that if I’m going to do this well, I have to answer that question to an audience, and it’s going to be about figuring out how to go, ‘Fuck it. This is who I am.’”

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Photoshoots & Outtakes > Sessions > Photoshoots From 2018 > Session 005 [Vogue]