The title of Donald Margulies’ new Geffen Playhouse commission, “Time Stands Still,” refers explicitly to that moment when a photographer sets up and takes her shot. More subtly, it speaks to the common assumption among long-term couples that today’s relationship remains what it has always been. Margulies’ dissection of one such pair’s misapprehension, brilliantly acted by a quartet of thesps and impeccably helmed by Daniel Sullivan, invests the title with yet another connotation: The play’s two hours fly by as if time has stood still and you’ve barely taken a breath.
The first image is that of the walking wounded, as foreign correspondent James (David Harbour) painfully leads photojournalist Sarah (Anna Gunn) into their shared downtown Gotham loft. A car bomb encounter while on assignment has left her interpreter, Tariq, dead and her body ripped up, with broken bones and facial lesions.
Beneath the banal everyday chatter and efforts to get “back to normal,” we recognize their doubts about the future of their careers and eight-year relationship, with more stress tests yet to come.
Two very different sounding boards develop their story. Old friend Richard (Robin Thomas), attached to what sounds like the New York Times Magazine, provides context, humor and the fearlessness to call his pals on b.s. “You’re the Sid and Nancy of journalism,” he lashes out at the thought of their return to duty. “Two war junkies always looking for the next adrenaline fix.”
“Who are Sid and Nancy?” interjects Richard’s much younger, recently acquired girlfriend Mandy (Alicia Silverstone). Her position as outsider brings in the “civilian” point of view (she’s a party planner, of all professions to contrast to theirs), while identifying Richard as one guy for whom time certainly hasn’t stood still, at least in his personal life.
And beneath most conversations lurks Tariq, the “elephant in the room” (Margulies’ original title). James and Sarah’s martyred fixer, as correspondents’ go-betweens are known, proves to have exactly the opposite effect on their romance as relevant details are unearthed and their meaning is deconstructed.
Margulies keeps walking yet another elephant into the salon: the ethical dilemmas facing combat journalism’s purveyors and consumers.
They arise like exploding mines: How can one take photos of bleeding kids instead of intervening? And how long can one do so before cracking up? Why are readers drawn to such images, and what is their effect? If a civilian falls dead in the forest and there’s no one to record it, did it happen?
The opinions voiced are often provocative (James is scathing on the recycling of terror victims’ testimony into guilt-assuaging theater pieces) and even relevant to character. An anguished Mandy casts a non-p.c. vote on the journalist’s calling: “It’s not like it’s going to make any difference … What am I supposed to do with this information? Me, an ordinary person. It’s not like I can do anything besides feel bad and turn the page.”
Such reflections often seem shoehorned in by a playwright with an ax to grind. Nevertheless, play’s essential unity is maintained by an ensemble so in sync with each other’s minds and moods, so skillful at hinting at long-shared backstories, it’s truly as if they’ve known each other forever.
Gunn and Harbour fully embody this couple’s history and conflicts, but what’s magical are the little touches of physical proximity and overlapping dialogue expressing infinitely more than words. (You can chart the rise and fall of an entire marriage through their changing manner of requesting or providing liquid refreshment.)
Thomas’ ease with them feels completely right, as does his early awkwardness (believably reduced over time) with Silverstone, who turns a potential straw man — the bubblehead going toe to toe with worldly intellectuals — into an independent spirit of unexpected conviction.
James and Sarah’s living space, variously lit by Peter Kaczorowski to suggest chilly battlefield and inviting home front, is executed by John Lee Beatty with — appropriately enough — utter photorealism.