Time Stands Still

Donald Margulies is one of my favorite modern playwrights and after seeing his latest play I was reminded of why. Time Stands Still is currently playing a limited run at the Biltmore (actually now called the Samuel J. Friedman theatre, but it was the Biltmore when the original Broadway production of Hair premiered there in 1968 so I like to call it the Biltmore! Also, Hair is the Biltmore‘s longest running show, having lasted 1,750 performances) and with a great script to start with mixed with expert direction, a thoughtful lighting design and fantastic performances, this could easily run even longer at a smaller house.

Time Stands Still is really a beautiful character study so the plot is thin but the themes are rich. The story concerns a couple, James and Sarah, who travel the world as a journalist and photographer, respectively, covering atrocities and “important” news stories. At rise, James is bringing Sarah home to their Brooklyn apartment from a hospital in Germany, where she spent the last several months after being seriously injured in a roadside bombing in the Middle East. Their editor, Richard, stops by now and then with his much younger new girlfriend, Mandy, and the four challenge and learn from one another.

As we watch the action unfold in a cramped Brooklyn one-bedroom apartment, the lighting design subtly shifts our focus and enhances each mood. When Sarah and James get into a heated argument, the lights dim and the focus of the light shifts from the entire stage to the kitchen table, where Sarah and James are sitting across from each other. It’s here, too, that you notice the great direction. Actors who are downstage center facing off in a profile are in one of the strongest positions on a stage. This is the blocking for the argument. It is incredibly powerful to see, in such a small apartment, the vast space between Sarah and James. Bravo to director Daniel Sullivan for such precise staging.

What I like most about Margulies’s writing is that it doesn’t talk down to its audience but it also doesn’t overreach - it doesn’t try to be smart, it just is. (This is unlike some other plays I’ve recently seen, like This.) In addition, Margulies writes full and flawed characters, which is to say he writes about real people. James and Sarah are the most round characters of the four, but all of them are dynamic, ending up somewhere far away from where they started.

Breathing life into these characters is a cast of four terrific actors. Eric Bogosian, an accomplished playwright himself, is Richard and though he is the least impressive of the bunch, he is serviceable and certainly believable as a caring editor who is just happy to have his friends back out of harm’s way (for the time being) and a light, uncomplicated girlfriend by his side. Alicia Silverstone - yup, Cher Horowitz from Clueless - plays his girlfriend, Mandy. Silverstone does a very good job here, giving a layered performance for a character that could have easily been nothing more than a stereotype. The youngest character in the play, Silverstone’s Mandy is sweet but not a pushover and I applaud her for that. Silverstone has been with the play since it premiered in Los Angeles and her solid performance is, no doubt, the reason why.

The two heavyweights are Brian d’Arcy James and Laura Linney as James and Sarah. These two expert actors are nothing short of phenomenal here. Watching them discuss, debate and dispute is delectable. Linney is a master at playing strong women who are reticent, to say the least, to show their vulnerability so she fits perfectly here but she also is able to make Sarah more than some one-note tempestuous woman. And d’Arcy James, who I’ve seen in several shows around town and is one of my favorite New York actors, is superb as James, who is trying to hold it together and figure out a life with Sarah. Linney and d’Arcy James go toe to toe arguing the virtue of their work and the direction their lives and life is headed. At one point, James tells Sarah he’s tired of putting his life on hold for the next story and that he wants a “simple boring happy” kind of life. This is not a defeatist attitude; it is honest - James is realizing that the adventures he and Sarah are used to chasing are nothing compared to the grounded domestic life they could lead. D’Arcy James plays this moment perfectly, showing a raw mix of exhaustion and heartbreak. Brian d’Arcy James is a solid actor and it’s a delight to see him seamlessly go from one role to the next. (I’ve seen him off- and on-Broadway in a variety of roles, including the husband in the off-Broadway production of Next to Normal, and Shrek, the layered ogre, and never once did he give a half-hearted or disingenuous performance. I can’t wait to see what he chooses to do next.)

I mentioned earlier that the themes of Time Stands Still are rich. Indeed, the play ponders the point of it all. Sarah and James are serious people; they shoot and write about wars and starvation and genocide. They’ve seen it all and the effect it has on their worldview is unmistakable. Sarah, for example, doesn’t have time for movies when there are people suffering in the Sudan. But then Mandy comes along and she is slightly na├»ve but not stupid; she has a more pleasant affect but is not at all any less authentic or compassionate. She challenges Sarah and James to “see the joy - otherwise, what’s the point?” Mandy’s argument is that yes, the world is full of terrible things but it’s also full of wonderful things. Likewise, when James is outraged that the magazine won’t publish his African refugee story because it is already running a story about the Iraq war that week, Mandy reasons that the magazine already has their bummer story. This enrages Sarah and James, but Mandy points out that the magazine needn’t be full of “important” stories. “I read these stories,” she argues, “and then I think what can I do?” She doesn’t mean to say that we should go through life blind to the world around us but rather that we should take in the whole world. Recognize the grotesque and the beautiful. And that someone is not any less serious or intelligent or mature or anything else simply because he or she chooses to focus on what is positive and uplifting rather than the macabre.

Mandy also challenges the merit of Sarah’s work. For Sarah, when she takes a photograph, time stands still. Everything just freezes and she captures that moment. Sarah feels this is important because it’s her duty to inform the public about what’s going on. But when Mandy sees one of Sarah’s pictures of a boy who looks like he’s about to die, she accuses Sarah of being indecent for taking a picture of the suffering instead of trying to help. Though Sarah argues that that is not her job, that there was nothing she could have done – the boy was going to die anyway, Mandy does not accept this. Her sense of compassion says, like a good Samaritan law, if you see something wrong you should try to make it right - instead of just exploiting it with your camera.

I think this is such an interesting argument. Sarah sees her role as a professional to be one of helping through documentation while Mandy sees Sarah’s role as a human being to help by getting into the action. On the one hand, for all the atrocities that are reported on, we know there are too many others that go unreported. So it is absolutely important that we are made aware, as much as possible, of what is happening outside our bubble. On the other hand, what good does having this knowledge bring if we don’t do anything? And what does doing something look like? I don’t pretend to have the answers. I know what’s going on in the world though I don’t do something about everything; I sporadically do what I can, whether it’s attending a rally to Save Darfur or making a charitable donation to the Food Bank, and then I just try to be grateful for the bounty that is in my life. The great thing about Time Stands Still is that without being preachy, it forces us to ask these questions and have this discussion, and to me, that’s the beauty of artistic expression.


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