Time Stands Still
By Donald Margulies
With David Harbour, Anna Gunn, Alicia Silverstone, and Robin Thomas
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
The Geffen Playhouse through March 15, 2009
Time Stands Still is a play for grownups about grownups, even though no character comes off as particularly mature when you look closely ... but then, except for the reflection in the mirror, who really is a grownup? And what is a grownup anyway?
James and Sarah are a loft living New York couple who have been together for eight years but have not bothered to get married. Nothing particularly noteworthy there. Well, they do not spend a lot of time living in their cool loft because he is a reporter whose beat is war and she is a famous photojournalist in the same arenas. "I live off the sufferings of strangers" she tosses off in her hard-edged, smart, New York style. They are at home because she was nearly killed in Iraq by an IED and is in need of some serious rehab. He had returned home a few weeks earlier "shell shocked" after becoming covered in blood and body parts while covering a story. He returned to Iraq only to bring her safely home. While she is determined to go back to the only life she can imagine having, he wants to settle down, get married, have a family.
Richard and Mandy are different sorts. Richard is the photo-editor of the magazine in which the other two publish. He is somewhat older than James and Sarah. Mandy is his current squeeze. She is very young, cute, blond, and in an entirely different league from the other three. She is an events planner with a sunny outlook on life, unlike Sarah and James, and does not have much depth. For example, when the others talk about "Brazil" she does not get that they are talking about the movie, not the country. Playwright Donald Margulies does intra and inter couples dynamics with great flare. It shows in Time Stands Still, as well as in his earlier, Pulitzer Prize winning work, Dinner with Friends.
Time Stands Still is about a lot of things. It is about how couples grow together and how they grow apart. It is about "adrenaline junkies" who report on war. And about the way relationships can flourish in one time and one place, but wither under different circumstances. It is about how time does not stand still. Take another step back and it is about the journalistic conflict between being the recorder of tragedy, and not being a rescuer. The delicate balance between voyeurism and bringing an important message to the world is not new. That issue and the adrenaline junkie mentality necessary to be a war correspondent were well handled in the movie, Welcome to Sarajevo, but bear repeating.
For James and Sarah, roads begin to diverge. Sarah successfully completes rehab. They marry, Sarah reluctantly. She still has grit and determination; she cannot see herself in a life without her camera recording events in an arena of crisis. While James looks at Richard and Mandy, where mid-life crisis has turned to a "regular life," marriage, baby, and stability and he yearns to have the same with Sarah. Mandy starts to sound a lot less like a ditz and more like a woman who is naive but not stupid. She asks the questions that lead the sophisticates to some introspection.
There is a lot of snappy dialogue. Anna Gunn as Sarah wields the clever turn of a phrase as deftly as Sarah wields her cameras. Though deadly serious, Time is not without humor. Alicia Silverstone, Mandy, gracefully handles the transition from air head to adult. Sarah is definitely the star of the couple both in the story and on the stage; James is her adoring eternal puppy.
There is a lot to like in Time Stands Still, especially in Act I. The arc of Act II, however, is somewhat uncertain and the ending is initially unsatisfying, as though Margulies is looking for a finish he cannot quite locate. That was my initial reaction. By the time I reached the curb I was not so certain. Life is untidy. Loves end, but even the person precipitating a breakup experiences qualms; love does not end neatly and frequently it does not entirely disappear. An old love is a bit like the elephant in the room. You cannot forget about it even if moving on is the only rational thing to do and a new love has filled its place. Relationships that seem simple turn out to have their own quirks. Margulies' endings have been well described as "melancholy ambiguity," which captures the final mood.
Time Stands Still is not perfect, but it is intelligent, complex, well acted, well directed. and well worth seeing. Commissioned and premiered by the Geffen, there is time to iron out some of the wobble and lack of direction in the second act, but the "melancholy ambiguity" should remain. Isn't that how much of what we experience ends?