Time Stands Still
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 29, 2010
There's a scene in Time Stands Still where one of the leading characters, a burned-out journalist named Jamie, complains about contemporary drama: he's talking about a show along the lines of the recent documentary play about the Iraqi War, Aftermath; he says that theatre like this preaches only to the converted, provides nothing actionable to the cause it espouses, and mainly exists to make rich liberal audiences feel less guilty about the world's evils. Jamie is largely correct about the kind of play he's speaking of. But unfortunately he is in one himself: Donald Margulies's new play at Manhattan Theatre Club is weirdly self-referential here and elsewhere, as it touches upon, and then quickly abandons, a variety of significant, grown-up political and moral issues. It winds up being a less-than-satisfying bittersweet romantic drama, enhanced enormously by the skillful performances of its four-person cast and the smooth, smart direction of Daniel Sullivan.
The story revolves around Sarah, a dedicated photojournalist who has just returned to New York after surviving a roadside bombing in one of the Middle Eastern theatres of war where the US is currently engaged. Her longtime boyfriend/partner, Jamie, has brought her back to their arty Williamsburg loft to recover from very serious injuries, including some emotional ones.
The catalysts for what happens next are Richard, Sarah's editor and friend, and Mandy, the twentysomething seeming-airhead whom Richard has fallen in love with and is about to have a child with. Richard wants Sarah to go back to work (she does too), but Jamie thinks it's too soon; indeed, he spends his time writing a book about horror movies, indefinitely putting off ever getting back to war reporting. At the same time, Mandy's pregnancy awakens other feelings in both Jamie and Sarah, and they contemplate getting married after all their years together.
The plot spins out in ways you both expect and don't see coming, making Time Stands Still an entertaining enough drama. Mandy is ultimately the only character whose passions hold up, unscathed and unchallenged, and she serves as the play's moral center, bringing up issues that point up the differing world views of Jamie and Sarah. But Margulies keeps Mandy and her ideas in the background, focusing more on the shifting relationship between Jamie and Sarah. Yet he is unwilling to let either one be heroic, which distances us from them: I wanted to root for one or the other, to be able to leave the theatre knowing that the righteousness of one or the other's position had triumphed. But for whatever reason—wishy-washiness?, postmodernism?—Margulies chooses not to push his play in that direction.
As a result, I was always interested in Time Stands Still, but never really concerned. I liked the work of all four actors: Laura Linney is bold and charismatic and intriguingly quirky as Sarah; Brian d'Arcy James is warm but mercurial as the conflicted Jamie; Alicia Silverstone brings depth and intelligence to Mandy, whom we expect to lack both; and Eric Bogosian, perhaps risking some type-casting here, is on-target as the arrogant, affluent jerk-on-the-surface who proves to have brains and heart.
Sullivan's direction is completely seamless, as it should be. His designers—John Lee Beatty (sets), Rita Ryack (costumes), and Peter Kaczorowski (lighting)—supply a world that feels exactly ambient to Margulies's story and characters. This is, on the whole, an entirely commendable theatre experience...but one that left me cold. I wanted to get wrapped up in the pursuits and passions of these people, but I never felt even a trace of a spark from the Samuel J. Friedman stage.