With a Donald Margulies play you can count on intelligent dialogue, a consideration of the artistic process, and
unresolvable relationship issues. Time Stands Still (2009), now receiving a stellar showing at the Studio Theatre (to 2/12), delivers on all these and more. On the surface, a tale about the hazards of embedded journalism, Mr. Margulies'
latest effort is more in the nature of a problem play, one that examines emotional and aesthetic distancing, levels of engagement
(desensitization versus catharsis), and extreme occupations. Some people live on the edge for that adrenaline rush,
others to escape uncomfortable commitments. The two main characters Sarah (Holly Twyford), a photojournalist seriously
injured in a roadside bombing, and James (Greg McFadden), a shell shocked reporter, seem to fall into the latter category.
She's been coping with entanglements by directing a camera lens elsewhere to blunt her feelings; he's let fate call
the shots in his life and work, choosing fantasy over reality, following the whim of the moment.
Susan Fenichell's finely paced, naturalistic production unfolds as carefully as a bandage pulled from a fresh
wound. Sarah arrives home badly scarred and Ms. Twyford, in a delicately crafted performance worthy of Broadway,
reveals the internal with the external trauma sustained by her character. Mr. McFadden as the overly solicitous James
plausibly strains to give her re-entry the soft landing required to rehabilitate not only her injuries but their relationship.
As with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner with Friends (2000)
and his earlier Sight Unseen (1991), four's the ideal cast size to stir the plot. Long-time friend and editor
Richard (Dan Illian) arrives with his latest conquest (or is it the other way round?) Mandy (Laura C. Harris), an event planner
half his age who's looking to block out her calendar for the future. Richard, played by Mr. Illian with a mixture
of deference and stature suitable to his mid-level position is motivated by obvious concern, but one also senses a desire
to keep an eye on his charges and their mutual projects on tract. (For those December-May romanticists of any persuasion,
Richard's special case offers hope eternal.) The seemingly immature Mandy has the best handle on the emotions; she's
the go-to gal when the overly intellectual or combative elders get out of hand. Ms. Harris tones down this ditsy character
to human proportions in as fine (and comic) a supporting performance as I've seen this year.
What level of involvement should the artist (photographer) or anti-war activist
maintain and what are the costs for all parties? Should that distance be at arms length as Sarah and to a lesser extent
James and Richard would assert, or do we chose to embrace it Mandy style? And how does it affect the outcome?
The title suggests a moment of revelation, but also of stasis. James who has lived through two near-death experiences
(his own and Sarah's), is ready to fold the cards handed him while Sarah, by virtue of her upbringing and past flings,
seems frozen in time, plays on. Perhaps Richard has it best, by experiencing their adventures vicariously while trying
to have it both ways at home. You feel that the intuitive Mandy will be the featured guest at future meetings.
Act I, delivered over a short time sequence, is as good as it gets for theater
as a slice of life. Characters are revealed in dialogue and action - Ms. Twyford's Sarah, particularly, in quiet
and offhand moments - which flow spontaneously in the opening scenes. However, what appears to be a carefully framed
set-up for the revelations (one big one coming early on) to follow, never really materializes. Act II has a more disjointed
feel; the well-made play that his been Mr. Margulies' signature style in the past, and is suggested here, gives way to
a more improvisational, character-driven structure. The discoveries are more ambiguous, the reversals less complete.
Mr. McFadden hits his upper emotional register in an assured manner, full of conviction, before the bittersweet moment which
feels less surprising than it does foreordained. While the play seldom hits a false note in the opening, the discordant
second act, nicely captured by the sound and original composition of Eric Shimelonis - an attractive scoring in its own right
- appears to resolve in another key. The bottom drops out so quickly on this world, you'll be left wondering about
the foundation, if any, that sustains it.
John McDermott's urban rainforest of a set - expansive and well stocked - provides
ground cover for the effusive though camouflaged personalities that Ivania Stack adroitly costumes. Mary Louise Geiger's
omniscient lighting follows them through every nook and cranny of the open and wide-angled floor plan.
I found the respective professions, which the script hangs some dialogue
on though few of the attributes, a bit of stretch. Though by forgoing audio-visuals, the playwright and director are
telling you this is less about war and more about individuals.
Mr. Margulies' script provides the framework and a tight ensemble cast with outstanding direction and thoughtful
design makes Time Stands Still a theatrical moment to remember.
Applause meter: Highly recommended. Runtime: About 2 hours with an intermission.
© John F. Glass, January 23, 2012