Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 28, 2010
Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Rita Ryack. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound design by Darron L. West. Original music by Peter Golub. Fight Director Thomas Schall. Cast: Eric Bogosian, Brian D'Arcy James, Laura Linney, Alicia Silverstone.
The most obvious are to be found with regard to Sarah (Laura Linney), a photographer-for-hire who's made her career shooting where the shooting is and preserving instances of humanity behind even the bloodiest violence. On one recent assignment, a roadside bomb left her scarred and comatose, and she's only just recovered. Luckily, her spirit and determination to bring to the world the true cost of strife is undeterred.
Or is it? Resolute as Sarah may appear, her near-collision with death has rendered her unable to accept what she once took for granted. Chiefly, this involves her boyfriend of eight years, James (Brian D'arcy James), a writer whose prose has often complemented her images, and with whom things have lately been rocky. Nearly losing her has convinced him that life is too short for indecision, and now he wants to go against their previous agreement and marry her. But, for various reasons, she's not sure. Nor does she think she can deal with the lame excuses her mentor and frequent employer, photo editor Richard (Eric Bogosian), gives her about her stories and her ability to function - he wants her to play it safe from now on, too - or his apparently ditzy new girlfriend, Mandy (Alicia Silverstone).
Though it draws on the hallmarks of the readjustment genre, Time Stands Still has considerably more on its mind and no shortage of interesting ways to broach the topics. James's disillusionment with his career is filtered through an article he's writing comparing the manufactured horror of monster movies to the reality he and Sarah have experienced on battlefields, and the progression of his work provides a smart contrast for the couple's personal struggles. And though apparently oblivious to any world extending beyond her exquisitely manicured nails, in time she reveals an outlook that's just as deeply considered as Sarah's - merely oriented in a different direction.
Margulies keeps you guessing about her - and Sarah's - true motives throughout most of both acts, and never lets the play become a completely two-dimensional tract about how the blissfully ignorant should cede control of their emotions and actions to those who "really care." Sullivan ensures that his actors make Sarah, James, and Mandy express their clashing points of view so succinctly that you shouldn't be surprised if you find them all equally convincing in different ways - no small achievement for three people who've constructed their lives on rock-solid certainty.
Silverstone has a milder version of the opposite problem. She's hilarious when Mandy's at her dopiest, but doesn't introduce as many dark undertones as she could once the character reveals her own moral compass. Mandy still seems to be playing a bit, rather than revealing the inner reaches of her being as sincerely as Sarah and James do.
But Linney and James show you the full scope of Sarah's and James's troubles, making powerful connections to their characters' increasingly fracturing worldviews. James smoothly inhabits James's mounting confusion and despair, as he finds his mind being constantly challenged by his heart. And Linney presents a fascinating battle between Sarah's inherent sense of elitism, her humanism, and her long-subdued instincts toward self-preservation.
No, it may not be the most original or suspenseful conflict imaginable, but Margulies has made it considerably more interesting by ensuring that it doesn't happen in a vacuum. The world threatening to break down Sarah's resolve always waits just beyond her mindset. Its intrusions - whether from Mandy's cloudy-eyed realism or James's own mounting doubt - keep Time Stands Still from ever spinning away from the inertness that, even more than death, is Sarah's greatest fear.