During intermission at a performance last week of Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still, commissioned by the Geffen Playhouse, where it’s now receiving its world premiere, I found myself speaking with a woman seated in the row in front of me. She’d come to the play by herself. Her husband, she said, never joins her because he finds the plays being put on in our larger theaters “too liberal.” Goodness, I thought, he should get out more.
There is nothing progressive about almost any of the work currently playing on our larger stages. Pasadena Playhouse’s Stormy Weather isa star-studded homage to Lena Horne. It does include a few critical swipes at bigotry and McCarthyism in the ’50s, if you think that is cutting-edge; meanwhile, the Taper presents Pippin, a musical from 1972 that scolds ’60s youth for trying to change their world, and extols by show’s end the folly of social liberalism and the virtues of tending our own gardens instead. A new musical, Minsky’s at the Ahmanson, may seem racy but preaches as gospel that the theater — a burlesque house in Depression-era New York — is a sanctuary from all the problems outside. Call it the head-in-the-sand theory of art. And now there’s Margulies’ beautifully written, directed and performed Time Stands Still,which, despite its implicit and hollow aspirations to examine all sides of its characters’ conflicted values, is yet another palliative. Time does not stand still. Time marches forward. Only our theater stands still, then wonders why it’s wilting in the heat of its own irrelevance.
Star photojournalist Sarah (Anna Gunn) returns to her Brooklyn digs from a German hospital after having been seriously wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Her partner, a print journalist named James (David Harbour), loves playing mother hen to his wounded chick. This trait comes to the fore when they have their photo editor, Richard (Robin Thomas), over for snacks; he comes attached to a blonde beauty named Mandy (Alicia Silverstone).
The tension between James and Sarah pops like a pimple when James, doing his protective dance, questions whether Sarah should be drinking coffee. Her sharp rebuke, ostensibly about coffee, is a dart that punctures all the subtextual reasons that their partnership is crumbling, a disintegration that lies at the heart of the play. Margulies is a masterful observer of behavior. He reveals depths of tension through the most superficial tics and, under Daniel Sullivan’s direction, gestures and expressions.
“Fuck you,” says Richard softly to his journalist friends when his sweet Mandy retreats to the bathroom. Richard’s in his 50s, you see, while Mandy’s barely out of her teens. Though the journalist-hosts haven’t said a word, Richard knows what they’re thinking. It’s what we’re all thinking: Richard is having a midlife crisis. In actuality, Mandy is there to guide him toward fatherhood and domesticity, a world that James covets and Sarah ridicules.
Much of the inspiration for this play comes from Margulies’ glorious lifelong obsession with the relationship of storytelling to morality. His Collected Stories is the study of a student who steals her own lit teacher’s harrowing life saga; Margulies’ Shipwrecked! An Entertainment — The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself) profiles a Victorian-era literary con man who invents an amazing life story for publicity and other reasons.
In Time Stands Still, the play’s most interesting ideas about image and morality are only loosely and somewhat arbitrarily tethered to the play’s core issue, which appears to be the conflict between people with careers that send them into the world, and whether or not they should surrender those careers for kids and family. Here we are tending those gardens again, while the more stark and vital issue of what journalists think they’re doing in the world merely flaps in the wind. We learn that James suffered a breakdown in Iraq and left Sarah to suffer through that roadside bomb blast without him. Good stuff for a crumbling marriage, but it has nothing to do with the morality of Sarah’s photo images. That issue does arise in party conversation about how Sarah can photograph a subject who’s dying and notdo anything to help. It’s a good question, and Margulies skirts any serious reply.
British playwright Chris Thorpe, in his 2002 play Safety, melds with more success a crumbling marriage with the ethics of a photojournalist who, one day in the middle of England and with camera in hand, observes his own daughter drowning in a lake. Rather than rushing in to save her, he imagines — in the split second that would make the difference between her living and dying — the photograph, the pixels, the contours, the setting. This detachment is a consequence of his having spent decades photographing death and dying in war zones. His daughter is saved not by him, but by a simple-minded neighbor who springs to action. The photographer must, from gratitude and courtesy, invite the savior to dinner. The photographer’s wife finds herself enraged by her husband’s blind arrogance and subtle condescension to their guest. That dinner is the beginning of the end of their marriage, and it’s perfectly cemented to the larger issues of how we receive the world beyond our own gardens.
The aspect of Time Stands Still that I find most troubling is the way Margulies works his hand against journalists, while his play dishonestly presumes to be an impartial and penetrating study of its characters and their values. Much of this rests with woman-child Mandy, performed by Silverstone with such an endearing and persuasive simplicity that she may actually be tilting the play off its axis.
In the Act 1 social party among the quartet, Mandy plaintively asks Sarah how she can snap photos of the dying and not intervene to save their lives. Gunn’s Sarah is a coolheaded woman of ferocious intelligence, yet all she can say to Mandy is, “It’s not our job to save the world,” and “We’re not really there.” To the latter response, the audience gasped and burst out laughing.
This may actually be how some photojournalists view their work, but many others know that authentic images from war zones can help end wars. Photos from Vietnam were what helped bring that debacle to a close, and why armies here and abroad now embed journalists in an attempt to mask the truths they may tell. In some circles, journalists who risk their lives to report the truth are considered heroes — but not by Mandy. And while we might assume that in the asking of the question, Margulies would side with Sarah, he actually lets Mandy have the upper hand. There are two journalists standing in the living room he created, and neither of them has the wit to conjure any morally defensible response to Mandy’s fairly simple question.
In Act 2, Mandy is back, now with Richard’s baby, while James moans to his editor that his story on some refugee camp didn’t get printed. Mandy attacks James sharply, questioning the value of his stories about human misery, and the value of a coffee-table album of Sarah’s war photos.
“What is a simple person like me supposed to do with those images?” Mandy asks. Again, our two geniuses representing the profession of journalism remain mute.
I have a reply, even if they don’t:
“Dear Mandy, why don’t you call Amnesty International and ask them what you can do? If the line is busy, call Doctors Without Borders and ask them what you can do. And there is, of course, the Peace Corps, and any number of churches straining their resources to help relieve pain. The tears of the world are a constant quantity, as Samuel Beckett noted, but so are the people trying to dry those tears. Volunteerism among American high school and college students is up 12 percent in the past year. Ask them, and stop whining, for God’s sake, and for ours. You having a baby in New York City with a man 30 years your senior may be noble, but please don’t use that to belittle the efforts of people who find their nobility in other places.”
Instead, James and Sarah stand chastened by the coffee-table homage to their life’s work, a book that’s yet another joke on them.
Tend your gardens, people. If this is “liberal” theater, I need a compass.
TIME STANDS STILL | By DONALD MARGULIES | Geffen Playhouse | 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd. | (310) 208-5454 | www.geffenplayhouse.com | Through March 15