Time Stands Still Review 1 and 2: Love, War and Photojournalism

In honor of the reunion reading with the original Broadway cast (Laura Linney, Brian d’Arcy James, Eric Bogosian and Alicia Silverstone)  of “Time Stands Still” online starting December 3, 2020, here is my review of that cast in the original Broadway production on January 31, 2010, which was under the headline “Love, War and Glib Metaphor.” Below that is my reconsideration of the play  on October 7, 2010 when it reopened with a slightly altered cast.

For more than eight years, Sarah (Laura Linney) and James (Brian d’Arcy James) have shared love and war and a loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn: As journalists, they’ve covered conflicts and catastrophes around the world. Now back home after injuries (hers physical, his psychological) caused by the violence they were chronicling,the unmarried couple is about to embark on struggles that are more personal in “Time Stands Still,” which has now opened at the Manhattan Theater Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater. The new four-character play by Donald Margulies seemed to me ultimately thinner and less thoughtful than it might initially appear.

Margulies has described “Time Stands Still” as “essentially a love story,” which is familiar ground for the playwright of the prize-winning “Dinner With Friends.” There is certainly much here about the couple’s relationship, past and present – revelations of infidelity; disagreements over whether to settle down.

Their interaction is placed in contrast to that of their friend and editor Richard (Eric Bogosian), who pays a series of visits to the loft accompanied by his much younger girlfriend, Mandy, an event planner (Alicia Silverstone). Theirs is a less complicated and in many ways more stable connection. The difference in Mandy’s age is initially played for laughs (“You always wanted a little girl,” Sarah jokes to Richard; then later, “there’s young, and there’s embryonic.”) But it soon becomes clear that, in her inexperience, Mandy may see things more clearly, or at least with a perspective that’s as legitimate as her elders. The play becomes something of a consideration of the differing attitudes expressed or embodied by the characters towards such questions as the balance between home-life and career.

“Time Stands Still” would have had plenty to wrestle with by keeping focused on the couple’s relationship, but the playwright didn’t stop there. The audience is asked to consider whether the work that Sarah does is morally defensible. In something of a toast to his friends, Richard says to them, “certain people in your life, you not only love, you admire. You’re my golden couple. I live vicariously through [your adventures]” But Mandy looks at them differently. Eyeing a picture that Sarah took of a baby about to die in its mother’s arms, Mandy asks Sarah, why didn’t you try to help? Sarah answers: I was trying to help, by photographing them. Later, Mandy cries out: “There’s so much beauty in the world. But you only see misery.” Sarah more or less concedes that she is in a miserable business: “I live off the suffering of strangers.”

The moral consequences of photography have been debated nearly since its invention, and the ethical dilemmas facing journalists in general are a favored topic among its practitioners. (One of the most famous, and much-debated, books on this question, “The Journalist and the Murderer” by Janet Malcolm, begins bluntly: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”)

I happened to see this play with a friend since high school who, like me, grew up in a family of journalists and became a journalist. We came to the same conclusions: 1. The debate over the moral defensibility of journalism (or more specifically photojournalism) would make a fine subject for a drama, precisely because it is inherently dramatic, not clear-cut (complicated in an interesting way), and of some consequence in the world. 2. The treatment of this subject in “Time Stands Still” is so superficial and one-sided as to be pointless. It seems shoe-horned into dinner party conversation to add a sense of seriousness without in fact offering much illumination.

It is worth noting that we don’t actually see any of Sarah’s photographs; we can only watch the characters’ faces as they look at them on a laptop computer. We also don’t see Sarah or James at work. We know the couple only in the physical comfort of their loft. We learn of no consequences to their work except in the havoc it wreaks on their personal lives. Sarah herself explains the appeal of her vocation as enabling her to keep psychological control over the world by capturing and containing it within the confines of her lenses.

In short, the deck is stacked; who seeing this play could possibly defend Sarah’s choice to bring attention to the horrors around the world that the public would rather ignore? I don’t know whether the playwright did this intentionally, but I found it striking that this play that ostensibly delves into issues of life and death used war several times in glib metaphor: “War was my parents’ house all over again, only on a different scale,” Sarah says. Every deadline day for his magazine “is another battle,” Richard says. This glibness leaks out to the dialogue over actual war and violence: “I don’t want to watch children die; I want to watch children grow,” James says to Sarah in arguing for a more settled life, as if these were mutually exclusive.

At a time when fear and collapse seem to be turning so many people inward, and in a theatrical landscape that finds room for a play like “Ruined” by Lynn Nottage focusing directly on the effects of war, I find it disappointing that a craftsman of such skill and sensitivity as Donald Margulies would load down his love story with such empty weight.

Time Stand Still by Donald Margulies At the Samuel J. Friedman Theater (261 West 47th Street) through March 14. Directed by Daniel Sullivan; sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Rita Ryack; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; sound by Darron L West; music by Peter Golub; fight director, Thomas Schall. Presented by the Manhattan Theater Club, Lynne Meadow, artistic director; Barry Grove, executive producer; by special arrangement with Nelle Nugent/Wendy Federman. Cast: Eric Bogosian (Richard Ehrlich), Brian d’Arcy James (James Dodd), Laura Linney (Sarah Goodwin) and Alicia Silverstone (Mandy Bloom). Running time: 2 hours with one intermission Ticket prices: $57 – $111

Time Stands Still Review Again: More Moving This Time

Time has not stood completely still for “Time Stands Still,” which, in an unusual move, has re-opened on Broadway six months after it closed there, with almost everything intact, including Laura Linney as the injured war photographer. There are two significant changes – Christina Ricci in place of Alicia Silverstone in the four-character play…and my reaction.

When the play opened last January, I criticized the effort by playwright Donald Margulies to graft matters of war and war journalism onto what he himself has called “essentially a love story.” I feel much the same as I did in January about the playwright’s inadequate explorations of the issues involved in reporting the world’s horrors, and in his employment of glib analogy, which is clearest in lines like the one Laura Linney is forced to say in explaining why she did not find covering wars all that hard an adjustment: “War was my parents’ house all over again, only on a different scale.”

Margulies is making use of the world’s catastrophes as a dramatic device to highlight and intensify the emotional lives of his characters, but an unfortunate consequence is the (perhaps unintentional or at least ancillary) message: Tend to your own house rather than caring about the world.

Just as a photographer’s framing of what she sees changes how others perceive it, however, so now the three original cast members have re-framed the play for me. They have so grown in their roles that it is a wonder to watch them; “Time Stands Still” has become for me on second viewing a lesson in good acting.

Through brief private glances, seemingly spontaneous flickers of feeling, the breathtaking and quick-changing range of tones they take with one another, Laura Linney as Sarah and Brian d’Arcy James as James are so good as a couple suffering strain in their eight-year relationship that it almost no longer matters what their arguments are about.

Eric Bogosian as their long-time friend and editor Richard does more than simply help illuminate their relationship for the audience and serve as contrast in his relationship with his new girlfriend Mandy. His facial expressions and body language are spot-on, hilarious and even touching when he is defending Mandy or trying to save her from embarrassing herself or his friends.

The girlfriend is now played by Christina Ricci, who is making her Broadway debut. As a child actress she came to fame first as Cher’s precocious nine-year-old daughter in “Mermaids” and then as the amusingly perverse and sullen daughter in the Addams Family movies, but anybody who saw Ricci in 1997’s “The Ice Storm” has formed an impression of her as an actress capable of great nuance and sophistication. Now 30 years old, Ricci is cast in “Time Stands Still” and asked to play a character so young, as Sarah puts it, that she’s embryonic. Mandy’s comments are so silly or inappropriate when we first see her – she enters the loft of James and Sarah carrying two mylar balloons “Get Well Soon” and “Welcome Back” — that she seems initially to serve as little more than comic relief.

We eventually see there is another, more respectful purpose to this character, a loyal, caring person who, despite her naïveté, is in touch with her feelings to such a degree that her emotional reactions amount to something like common sense. She and her relationship with Richard thus offer an alternative, or at least a contrast, to the priorities of Sarah’s life.

Unlike Alicia Silverstone, though, Christina Ricci seems to be playing Mandy not as an enthusiastic innocent but as a dolt. Her blank, blink-less stares in the first act make less plausible her transformation in the second. Ricci has proven herself a talented enough performer that she, too, is sure to grow into her role, with time.

Time Stands Still. Cort Theater (138 West 48th Street) 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 West, original music by Peter Golubm, stunt coordinator Thomas Schall Cast: Laura Linney (as Sarah), Brian d’Arcy James (as James), Eric Bogosian (as Richard), Christina Ricci (as Mandy) Running time: One hour, 50 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission Ticket prices: $56-$121.50. Premium seating as high as $251.50. Standing room (when available) $26.50. Apparently no rush or student discounts.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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