Time Stands Still
By Donald Margulies
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Cort Theatre, New York City 

The Manhattan Theatre Club production of Donald Margulies’s “Time Stands Still” had a successful run last season, garnering Tony Award nominations for the playwright and for leading actress Laura Linney. Now the play is back for an open-ended run on Broadway. Linney plays Sarah Goodwin, a photojournalist who specializes in war zones and who comes home from Afghanistan on crutches, her face scarred with shrapnel from a car bomb that put her in a coma for two months. Her husband, James Dodd (Brian d’Arcy James), is also a war correspondent who went straight from Stanford to the front lines in Somalia. After Sarah’s mishap, James has lost his appetite for adventure and would prefer to stay home writing think pieces about horror movies and celebrity profiles for Vanity Fair. Richard (Eric Bogosian), Sarah’s editor at some unnamed weekly newsmagazine, comes by with his new girlfriend, a twentysomething event planner named Mandy (Christina Ricci, in a role originally played by Alicia Silverstone), and an offer to arrange publication of a book of Sarah’s war photos if James will write the introduction.

Margulies, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the 1998 yuppie drama “Dinner with Friends,” is a neat-and-tidy playwright. So given the rough outline of the play, you can pretty much imagine the neat-and-tidy conflicts he invents for every combination of characters, the reversals, the outbursts, the rapprochements. It’s efficient, generic playwriting-by-numbers. The clichés fly fast and furious. A writer describes airport bureaucracy as…guess what literary adjective? The air-headed youngster gushes to the career woman that her pictures are…guess what overused Gen X adjective? A journalist describes covering a war as…guess what metaphor for excitement? Did you guess “Kafkaesque,” “awesome,” and “pure adrenaline”? If not, maybe “Time Stands Still” will seem fresh and hard-hitting to you. If you’re someone like me whose idea of good playwriting prizes truthfulness, surprise, and insight, this kind of relentless predictability makes your soul die a little. 

Shallowness pervades not just the language but the plot, the behavior, and the staging of the play. John Lee Beatty’s set could be anybody’s studio apartment in Brooklyn. A photographer lives there, but there are no framed photos to be seen. A writer lives there, but my mother, who did crossword puzzles and read romance novels, had more books displayed in her living room than this couple does. James is annoyingly oversolicitous of Sarah as if she’s his grandmother, not the fiercely independent war journalist he’s lived with for eight years. The arguments Margulies trots out about the ethics of photographing atrocities betray no more detail or original thought than any armchair philosopher who’s never left the suburbs could come up with. 

Once upon a time, Margulies wrote more intensely personal plays that took some chances. I’m thinking of “The Loman Family Picnic” (1989) with its unforgettably ugly scene of a father explaining to his son why he’s not allowed to keep his bar mitzvah money because the family needs it, and “The Model Apartment” (1989), with its mixture of surreal and super-real scenes of family life. Since then, he’s settled for writing these dreary generic eminently producible dramas with small casts that flatter audiences into thinking they’re watching Serious Theater without ever challenging them in the slightest.

The very fine actors have all done more distinguished work under other circumstances. Ricci is the biggest curiosity here, since she has apparently never acted onstage before. She’s a little freaky-looking with her shiny hair and skin, ball-bearing eyes and super-thin bod, and she’s not the revelation that Scarlett Johansson was last season in Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge.” Still, asked to play a condescending stereotype, Ricci does so honestly without adding any extra layers of vanity or commentary.

CultureVulture.net, October 8, 2010