Donald Margulies is one of my favorite living playwrights. He creates characters that are real, plots that are provocative, and dialogue that is lucid and often hilarious. His latest play, “Time Stands Still,” which was commissioned by the Geffen Playhouse and premiered there on Feb. 11, is a commendable addition to his body of work.
The play deals with a celebrated photojournalist who has been chasing wars around the world until it has become her obsession. Sarah, as depicted by the luminous Anna Gunn, is first seen returning home to her apartment in Brooklyn from a battleground where she was nearly killed. With her is her lover, James (David Harbour), a journalist who often accompanies her on these treacherous assignments. At this point, they are both broken: she in body and he in spirit.
As they reflect on the hopelessness and futility of their profession — they do nothing to help, they merely record — they reprise a theme that British playwright Chris Thorpe introduced a few years back in his play “Safety.” In that play a combat photographer, filled with despair and disquietude, ruminates on how he lost his humanity in his quest for the perfect depiction of the horrors of war.
Sarah’s quest is more of an addiction. She is revitalized by the adrenaline rush of being in the thick of things, dodging bullets and tempting death. James, however, is ready to pack it in. They have been together for eight years and he feels that it’s time to marry and settle down to what he considers a “normal” life.
Their intense, ongoing discussion is interrupted, and enlivened, by Richard (Robin Thomas), the photo editor for the magazine that Sarah works for, and his bubbleheaded new girlfriend Mandy (played deliciously by Alicia Silverstone). Mandy is very young, naïve, and intellectually innocent, much to Sarah’s annoyance. Richard, however, is obviously smitten with her, in spite of his recognition that his friends are astonished that he has chosen such a seemingly vacuous playmate.
Sarah becomes even more annoyed when Mandy questions her (Sarah’s) non-participatory role in the devastation that she records. “How can you stand there shooting pictures and not help when someone is dying right in front of you?” she asks. To which Sarah indignantly responds that it is not her job to help, but to document. She relishes the thought that she makes “time stand still” when she captures and freezes the moment.
Tony Award winner Daniel Sullivan, who has worked with Margulies on four productions, directs this play with a deft touch, moving it along briskly and keeping it from becoming too heavy. And, of course, Margulies’ unique perspective and wit invest the proceedings with laugh-out-loud humor. But as in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play of 2000, “Dinner with Friends,” Margulies opens another can of worms as the play comes to an ambiguous end.
“I just ask the questions,” Margulies has said. “I don’t supply the answers.”
Providing the ambience of Sarah and James’ small loft apartment is scenic designer John Lee Beatty. The appropriate nondescript costumes for the three “grownups” and a series of frivolous outfits for the cutesy Mandy were designed by Rita Ryack.
“Time Stands Still” was the recipient of a New American Play Award in 2007 from the Edgerton Foundation. As Dr. Brad Edgerton noted at that time, when the play was still a work in progress:
“We have great expectations that the play will be emotionally moving and teach us more about the human condition — and that is the ultimate purpose of great drama.” Happily, Donald Margulies has met those expectations.
“Time Stands Still” will continue at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 LeConte Ave., in Westwood Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7 through March 15. Call (310) 208-5454 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.