Now playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway.
Playwright Donald Margulies has a knack for dialogue and an evenhanded way with his characters, which makes Time Stands Still both enjoyable and exasperating. The four characters—and the relationships among them—feel very true to life, but they can be tiresome, too, with the principled becoming self-righteous, the optimistic blinkered. They have their soapboxes, their pet issues and obsessions—all very human, all quite recognizable—but damn, if I didn’t want to shake each of them at one point or another!
But the performances are shaded and compelling, the character arcs gracefully rendered, and the strained, sad love story at the play’s heart is beautifully told. As frustrating as I found Time Stands Still at times, I warmed to it in spite of myself. Margulies knows what he’s doing.
Laura Linney and Brian d’Arcy James star as Sarah and Jamie, a couple of old-school, war-zone journalists who have just returned to their Brooklyn apartment after Sarah was badly injured in Iraq. Sarah’s face is scarred, and one leg is in a brace, and she is as desperate to take care of herself as Jamie is desperate to take care of her. We learn gradually that he was not in Iraq when she was hit by the roadside bomb—he’d suffered a breakdown and returned home early—and his guilt (as well as hers, for other reasons) is eating away at him. When Sarah’s longtime friend and editor Richard (Eric Bogosian) arrives to visit the recuperating photojournalist, he brings along his much younger girlfriend, Mandy (Alicia Silverstone), and her naïvete acts as a catalyst, sparking the volatile, previously unarticulated tensions in the group over the course of several months.
Margulies is a Pulitzer Prize winner, but even so, I suspect that the Iraq angle—timely!—was the hook that got this play produced. The funny thing, then, is that the oh-so-contemporary bit is actually the least interesting aspect of the play. To be fair, I studied journalism in graduate school,* so I’ve heard the ethical issues examined in the play done to death elsewhere. I didn’t hear anything new, anything that made me see things in a different light, in Mandy’s hand-wringing about how a photojournalist who takes pictures of a crisis has chosen to do so instead of directly helping with that crisis. Sarah’s guilt over taking photos of grieving people who didn’t want to be photographed also left me cold, and the angst over the inevitable editorial decisions on “depressing” stories is predictable and stale. It all felt kind of banal—not unrealistic (God knows people can work themselves up into frenzies saying the same things again and again) but not particularly fresh or interesting either. Margulies got more mileage and nuance out of the moral issues of storytelling in Collected Stories, which I saw years ago and loved. In that play, the debates feel tailored to the characters in ways they simply don’t in Time Stands Still. In Time, it’s more paint-by-numbers, less specific, less telling.
The play comes alive not in the showily contemporary elements but in the relationships, particularly the partnership between Sarah and Jamie. Their bond shifts constantly, revealing new complexities, new permutations, chafing, soothing. Linney is just as hard-edged and sensitive and captivating as anyone who has seen You Can Count on Me or The Squid and the Whale (or even Breach) would expect, and James matches her impressively well. Sarah and Jamie’s spirited, thorny relationship has held strong for years, but they respond to Sarah’s injuries in different ways, prioritizing different goals, finding happiness in different things, and it’s not clear whether they still can make each other happy in the long run. Their scenes together are electric with tension, anger, and love—plus all the specificity and detail one would expect between people who have known each other very well for a long time.
Margulies’s genius here—and Linney’s and James’s as well—is that he faults no one for the couple’s rift. Both have their flaws, each has failed the other in small ways and big, but they love each other—we never doubt that—and they have a history together. The question is whether that’s enough. It reminded me a little of a TV show I watch intermittently (I refuse to name it here because if you don’t watch it, you won’t believe how smart and thoughtful it actually is) in which the point was made recently that not all relationships are epic novels; some are more like short stories, ending naturally when circumstances shift, possibly beyond the control of those involved, yet no less precious and meaningful for being relatively short-lived. It’s a sad but beautiful idea that bears consideration as Sarah and Jamie struggle to find a way forward. Their relationship—as written so generously by Margulies and brought to such vivid life by the actors—reveals more about happiness, devotion, vocation, duty—ethics, if you will—than all the overtly ethics-related stuff ever does. Never mind timely. Time Stands Still proves once again that timeless nearly always wins out.
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*A Public Service Announcement for Impressionable Young People
I always feel a little bit guilty saying this because I enjoyed graduate school and studied under a number of excellent professors, but even so: Unless you get (ahem) a wonderful, all-expenses-paid scholarship, you’re better off majoring in something other than journalism, even if journalism is your eventual goal. Study economics, political science, international relations, whatever, and in the meantime, write for any publication you can, try to land an applicable internship, and build up a portfolio. The best thing about journalism school is the contacts you make, and frankly, there are other, less expensive ways to get those. You’re better off studying something of substance that will make you a better reporter (or editor—whatever) down the road. And given how volatile the field of journalism is right now, it doesn’t hurt to have a more versatile degree either. Just saying.