Donald Margulies’ new play is a thoughtful, absorbing work, its strengths maximized in the crystalline naturalism of Daniel Sullivan’s production and the incisive interpretations of four astute actors. Reflecting on the divergent growth paths and changing needs of long-term relationships, “Time Stands Still” tends to tack on ethical debate points that reveal as much of the playwright’s voice as those of his characters. This makes the drama somewhat amorphous and less satisfying than it could be. But there’s a ring of truth to the emotional experience being thrashed out onstage that keeps it compelling.
The central figures are a couple of real-world horror junkies. Journalist James (Brian d’Arcy James) and photographer Sarah (Laura Linney) have spent their eight-year relationship hopping from one global hot spot to the next, covering wars, famines and genocides. While James made a shell-shocked retreat from Iraq months earlier, Sarah narrowly escaped death in a car bombing in which her interpreter was killed.
The play opens on Sarah’s return to their shared Brooklyn loft, designed with stylish authenticity by John Lee Beatty. She has a banged-up leg, a broken arm and a scar-streaked face she dryly refers to as “my ‘Phantom of the Opera’ look.” Exhausted and prickly, Linney’s Sarah heads off the sympathy her physical state might invite with a blunt succession of terse sentences and single-word replies to James’ nervous attentions. Clearly, there’s a strain in the relationship that goes beyond her injuries.
Friction is put on hold by the arrival of old friend Richard (Eric Bogosian), a magazine photo editor, with his perky young girlfriend, Mandy (Alicia Silverstone). Her job as an event planner could hardly represent a more frivolous polar opposite to the politically and socially engaged world of Sarah and James.
This initial exposure to the two-couple dynamic is one of the play’s most entertaining high points. Attitudes and positions are quietly suggested in the smart, casually funny observations of Margulies’ dialogue and beautifully established by all four actors.
While Sarah looks on or comments with cutting superiority, James balances mocking bemusement with just a hint that he understands Richard’s attraction to Mandy (conveniently absent in the bathroom for much of the dissection).
Bogosian is terrific at shrugging off the midlife crisis cliche. He smothers his mild embarrassment over his girlfriend’s lack of sophistication with a vigorous defense of his right to uncomplicated happiness after a punishing relationship with a hyperanalytical intellectual. “Fuck brilliant,” he says. “I’ve done brilliant.”
More unexpected, however, is the swiftness with which Margulies and Silverstone dignify Mandy and distinguish her from the usual bubblehead stereotype. She might be too eager to share her simplistic views, and she’s obviously scrambling to keep up with the cultural references, but unapologetic Mandy has an integrity that grows as the play and Silverstone’s enormously likable performance evolve, which puts the others to shame. (Silverstone is the sole cast member from Sullivan’s premiere staging at the Geffen Playhouse to return.)
The steadily fermenting conflict centers on Sarah’s intention, as soon as her recovery permits, to head back to Iraq, while James has emerged from his burnout with an unfamiliar desire for peace and stability. The example of Richard and Mandy’s blossoming union feeds that nesting instinct. Ostensibly, James’ lack of family rights during Sarah’s hospitalization is the principal argument in favor of their belated marriage. But Sarah’s feelings of guilt and indebtedness are more decisive factors, even if her addiction to the adrenaline rush of her work remains an obstacle.
Margulies doesn’t entirely avoid editorializing in arguments that surface regarding the ethics of journalism that traffics in human suffering, the misguided good intentions of high-minded liberal docu-theater, the ennobling attractions of wretchedness and oppression, or the desensitization of youth through a diet of torture porn. There’s also a schematic note to the suggestion that James’ extended study of the latter phenomenon is a substitute for frontline action: “Replacing real horror with fake horror.”
The uneven integration of those themes drains some of the poignancy from the growing distance in the central relationship — and some definition from the dramatic arc. But the richly three-dimensional and fully centered characterizations of James and Linney keep it real. James’ explosions of anger out of carefully maintained calm and patience are particularly effective.
As strong as the ensemble work is, it’s Sarah’s play, and the meticulous Linney reinforces that ownership without ever sacrificing her give-and-take with the other actors. She brings shadings to Sarah that can make her seem cold and unyielding, even in processing her own grief. Yet there’s a self-doubt underneath her impassioned defense of her chosen field that indicates she’s not indifferent to the charges of insensitivity. Nor is she unaware that the conviction she brings to her work can’t mask her own encroaching despair.