Time Stands Still
nytheatre.com review by Nathaniel Kressen
October 5, 2010
Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies returns to Broadway following a run earlier this year at Manhattan Theatre Club. At its core, the play examines the collateral damage of a life spent "saving the world," in this case the long-standing romantic relationship between two journalists. Sarah is a photographer, James is a writer. For years they have journeyed from war zone to war zone, fully believing in the importance of their work and never once considering the safer existence that marriage and parenthood might provide. When a roadside bomb nearly kills Sarah, James calls it quits and mistakenly assumes she will do the same. At odds with one another for the first time, each must consider what they are willing to live with, and what they cannot live without.
The show is most compelling when this question is at the forefront. Despite their shared history, they have adopted different perspectives of the world and their roles within it. Late in the play, Sarah confesses the one time she questioned the merit of what she was doing. While photographing a bomb scene where children lay dying, a mother rushed up and demanded that she leave. Instead, she kept shooting. James capitalizes on her rare admission by saying all he wants anymore is a normal life together, one where they aren't battling stomach parasites every week. He asks if it's wrong wanting to feel comfortable. She assures him it's not, however it becomes clear that no matter what misgivings she might have, she doesn't share his feelings.
In that scene in particular, Margulies illustrates how witnessing others' misfortunes has detached the couple from their own basic needs. The broad scope of their work is put into simple, immediate terms that the audience can identify with. Other scenes, however, take a more didactic approach by describing third-world tragedies without an indentifiable consequence on stage. That itself might be a statement from the playwright, however, as one of the journalists' chief concerns is their inability to convey the horrors happening throughout the world to readers leading a safe life in America.
As Sarah and James, Laura Linney and Brian d'Arcy James give solid performances but at times do not seem fully present. This could be a conscious choice to represent their characters' restlessness, as the year of the play is the longest they've ever spent in one location. Nonetheless, the distant quality makes it difficult to empathize with the struggles of their relationship.
Rounding out the cast are Eric Bogosian as the couple's editor and Christina Ricci as his much younger girlfriend. Bogosian has great comic timing, but seems handcuffed in this reserved role. Playing the most complex of the four characters, Ricci delivers the standout performance of the night. As written, the ditzy-yet-profound Mandy offers the only dissenting point of view among the group. She questions the morality of recording a tragedy rather than preventing it, subverts the stereotype of a May-December romance, and defends motherhood as a perfectly legitimate career choice. These carefully articulated arguments are made all the more enjoyable when she proves incapable of catering a wedding where the food doesn't taste like soap.
Daniel Sullivan's direction is effective in heightened moments of conflict, but struggles to endow the more conversational scenes of the play. The first act is largely devoted to the back story of the characters and a moral debate of their work. The true conflict is only introduced in the second act, and therefore receives a rushed resolution.
Design elements provide wonderful insight into the couple's lives. Especially noteworthy is the scenic design by John Lee Beatty, who has built a Williamsburg loft any number of Brooklynites would kill to have. In a fun side note, the couple mentions that they started living there before the neighborhood got cool.
Time Stands Still offers some truly poignant moments, yet suffers overall from a stagnant first act. The play's strength lies in its empathy for the principal characters—at home in the hidden corners of the world yet lost amidst civilization. It is when the focus turns to the world at large that the show loses its focus and urgency.