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Laura Linney and Anna Gunn: Portraits in excellence

January 28, 2010 |  8:00 pm

Timestands Reporting from New York

Plagiarism isn’t a common theatrical vice. Actors of originality find their own way, discovering a character's reality in the depths of their singular individuality.

This enduring truth was brought home after seeing Laura Linney in Donald Margulies’ “Time Stands Still,” which opened Thursday on Broadway at Manhattan Theater Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Linney is luminous in her portrayal of Sarah Goodwin, the photojournalist drawn to global danger zones who’s convalescing in her chic Brooklyn loft after being thrown from her vehicle by a roadside bomb that killed her Middle Eastern translator and lover.

The role was memorably originated by Anna Gunn during the play’s world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse last year, in a production also directed by Daniel Sullivan. The quality of both performances makes comparisons a competition of praise. Two patented versions of Sarah Goodwin have been granted — both equally valid.

Gunn impressed me with the degree to which she was present in her character’s badly injured body. Her Sarah hauled herself around her living quarters the way those impatient to recover brusquely attempt to overcome the impediments constraining their every move. Intolerant of sympathy, she had a sharp professional edge of superiority — Susan Sontag with a camera — that was the opposite of ingratiating. Not easily liked, she became a fascinating psychological study of someone to admire from a distance. Yet Gunn revealed Sarah's defenses so accurately that the audience couldn’t help wondering about the aching vulnerability beneath them. Timestands2

Linney’s portrait is softer yet no less convincing. Her Sarah seems more consciously engaged in trying to become, at least for a while, the kind of woman her American boyfriend, James Dodd (played by a very fine Brian D’Arcy James) would like her to be. He’s a reporter who’s grown tired of chasing wars, famines and genocides, those calamities that Sarah acknowledges she can’t get enough of. Nesting, it's fair to say, doesn't come naturally to her. Still, there’s something genuine (if blinkered) in the way she gives it a momentary go with James.  

Linney’s version of the character is somewhat easier to identify with, especially for those of us who have trouble watching CNN disaster coverage. The fanatical passion of her journalistic mission may be foreign to most theatergoers, yet the struggle to reconcile conflicting feelings about love and work is a lot closer to home. Linney lays bare Sarah’s internal strife with the authenticity and artistic humility that have made her one of the compelling actresses of our day. Her scenes with James have the unassuming honesty that distinguished her work in such films as "The Savages" and "You Can Count On Me."

The Broadway cast of four includes Eric Bogosian, who plays Sarah’s sympathetic yet pragmatic editor Richard Ehrlich. Margulies nails the type (he must have some hotshot journalist friends), and Bogosian turns in a dead-on depiction of an urban mensch whose essential goodness isn’t without some deflected compromise.

Alicia Silverstone, reprising the comic gem of a performance she gave at the Geffen, plays Richard’s new sweetheart, Mandy Bloom, an “event planner” less than half his age who has a hard time understanding why anyone wouldn’t choose personal happiness over global misery and despair. Silverstone infuses her character’s sparkling naivety with glints of incontrovertible wisdom.
Distinctive as they may be as a result of the cast’s differing chemistries, the Geffen and Broadway productions are united in their excellent service to Margulies' drama. Gunn and Linney prove that even plays that may not sweep awards or end up on college syllabuses can contain nuance and contradiction that bright actors can seize upon and make their own.  Thanks to actresses like these, the theater truly contains multitudes. 
-- Charles McNulty

Above: Top, Laura Linney and Brian D'Arcy James in "Time Stands Still" at Manhattan Theater Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Credit: Joan Marcus. Lower, Anna Gunn and David Harbour in "Time Stands Still" at the Geffen Playhouse. Credit: Los Angeles Times.