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United by art, divided by class: Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford in “Sunday in the Park with George” (©STEPHENIE BERGER)

Jake Gyllenhaal has long inhabited a cool space in the upper echelons of indie film-making from Donnie Darko to Brokeback Mountain and more recently as an oddball crime photographer in Nightcrawler.

Gyllenhaal’s stage excursions have been limited — a role in Kenneth Lonergan’s This is Our Youth 15 years ago at the Garrick and with Ruth Wilson on Broadway in Nick Payne’s brilliant Constellations.

Nothing in his filmography would lead us to expect him to leap so ably into musical theatre, let alone the artful meanderings of one of Stephen Sondheim’s most ambitious works. But inhabiting the dual roles of Georges Seurat and his artist descendant in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1984 musical Sunday in the Park with George at the Hudson Theatre in New York, Gyllenhaal has both flair and seriousness.

At its heart, Sunday is about “the art of making art”, down to the absurd focus on detail that has Georges fretting in “Finishing the Hat”, “They have never understood / And no reason they should / How you watch the rest of the world from a window while you finish the hat.” There’s definitely a homage to Mandy Patinkin (the gold standard of the role for Broadway connoisseurs) in his intense diction, but Gyllenhaal’s voice, lighter and mellifluous, is still rich enough to convey the introversions and passions of his subject.

The balance of characters — the painter and his sitter united by art, divided by class (she is illiterate, he gently mocks that) is crucial as wry, despairing Dot (Annaleigh Ashford) sweats on a hot day in the park at the sharp of pointillism. She wonders if he notices that that there “is someone inside this dress”. Not while working, is the answer.

The second act leaps a century and from Paris to bohemian Chicago, where a modern George, a conceptual artistic descendant of Seurat, finds himself like a character from Merrily We Roll Along, distrusting critical adulation and striving to unite old and new art forms.

All this is best kept simple on stage to avoid the piece creaking under the weight of its more abstract ideas. But Sarna Lapine (niece of the original scriptwriter) obliges with a direction that allows the concert nature of the piece to thrive, and Clint Ramos’s jewel-coloured costumes keep us gazing at the well-upholstered chorus girls, matriachs and gossips of the Seine. What’s the catch? This is a short run by New York standards — to mid-April, which is a huge shame. I guess Jake has to get back to trendier work. But as a leap from screen to one of the hardest forms of stagecraft, this vaulting ambition was a treat.

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