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Review: 'Time Stands Still' at the Geffen Playhouse

February 12, 2009 |  2:46 pm

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“Time Stands Still,” Donald Margulies’ compelling if at times elusive drama, which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse, revolves around a photographer badly injured in Iraq and her reporter boyfriend, who’s trying to establish a bit of normalcy with her as she recovers from her wounds.

A work that appears at first to be in the mode of British playwright David Hare, one of those politically engaged offerings hashing out the thorny moral questions of the day, turns out to be more focused on the domestic psychology of characters deciding between personal stability and a larger sense of purposefulness.  Introspection and insight, in other words, trump platforms and positions. 

The production, handsomely directed by Daniel Sullivan, features a standout performance by Anna Gunn as Sarah, the restless photojournalist who finds convalescing in the comfort of her upscale loft (stylishly designed by John Lee Beatty) as challenging as running around a war zone with a camera. It isn’t always clear where Margulies is dramatically heading — or what he’s specifically asking us to contemplate — but Gunn’s deeply inhabited portrayal reconciles the play’s zigzagging public and private concerns.

James (David Harbour), who fled Iraq before Sarah was hurt by a roadside bomb, is swamped by guilt for having left her alone. Well, not exactly alone — Sarah was traveling with an Iraqi “fixer,” a translator and go-between who became her lover after James departed, shellshocked from all the carnage he had witnessed. Quietly grieving the tragic death of this man, who was killed in the incident that almost claimed her life, Sarah tells James about the affair and her lingering feelings of loss.

Bending over backward to be forgiving, James just wants to take care of Sarah and start a new life with her in New York. The two of them have been shuttling among global trouble-spots since graduating from college, and this brush with death has heightened his desire for marriage, children and a middle-aged routine.

But something is amiss in their relationship. James is drinking heavily and wasting his talent writing about horror movies for an online zine. Sarah, edgy and restive, paces like a wounded animal that’s been caged for its own safety. Though this couple can be as hard to figure out as neighbors glimpsed distantly from down the hall, they act like characters who love each other but aren’t meant to be together.

Robin_thomas_and_alicia_silversto_2 Their differences, however, are less exaggerated when they’re in the company of Richard (Robin Thomas), a magazine photo editor who’s been a longstanding supporter of their work, and his much younger girlfriend Mandy (Alicia Silverstone), a bubbly event-planner whose bent is to look on the bright side of life.

“I guess you can say I’m into events too,” Sarah remarks with judgmental brusqueness. “Wars, famines, genocides.”

Mandy, however, isn’t that easily dismissed. She may be naive and all too ready to administer a hug, but she’s more in touch with her emotions than anyone in the room. And for all her inadvertent humor (Silverstone’s airhead stare and surprisingly sharp retorts keeps the audience in stitches), she poses some tough questions to Sarah concerning her profession. For example, how can anyone photograph maimed children rather than rush to their aid?

This debate, which can admittedly get clunky, may mislead an audience into thinking that Margulies wants to take up the ethical controversies surrounding journalists and their spectatorship of calamities and atrocities. But he’s ultimately more interested in the motivations of those who, as Sarah unsparingly says of herself, “live off the suffering of strangers.” It's the fugitive personal impulses— the desire to escape one's unhappy reality— that captivates his attention.   

But there’s a frustrating aspect to Sarah and James’ relationship, which translates unfortunately into a somewhat frustrating story line. This has less to do with the ending than with the murky and tentative aspects of their characters. What’s to be appreciated, however, is the caliber of Margulies’ observant realism and the small but expansive theatrical world he spins from it.

“Time Stands Still” attempts to integrate several of the playwright’s enduring obsessions, including the legacy of trauma (“The Model Apartment”), the vicissitudes of marriage (the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Dinner With Friends”) and the exploitative aspect of writing (“Collected Stories”). If the work doesn’t entirely succeed in finding a satisfying dramatic shape to contain these various interests, the play is nonetheless absorbingly intelligent, offering spacious roles to actors that are rich with possibilities of unexpected discovery.

Thomas is note-perfect as the editor boss, a good guy who knows he’s no hero but who’s too smart to consider himself the butt of a midlife crisis joke. Harbour has perhaps the toughest challenge — there’s an exasperating softness to James, but his vagueness is for the most part recognizable and true.

The play, however, belongs to Gunn, who renders Sarah’s internal wounds as vividly — and unsentimentally — as her external injuries. Hobbling around the apartment with a crutch, she draws us into the opaque mind and heart of a character who has made it her mission to document the torment of others while losing sight of her own less consequential anguish.

--Charles McNulty

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"Time Stands Still," Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte, Westwood. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 15.
Price: $45 to $79. (310) 208-5454. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Top photo: Anna Gunn and David Harbour in "Time Stands Still" at the Geffen Playhouse. Middle photo: Robin Thomas and Alicia Silverstone. Bottom photo: Gunn, Harbour, Thomas and Silverstone. Credit: Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times

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