During the throes of the Haiti earthquake aftermath last month, intrepid CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper made news himself when he broke from his reporter role to rescue a boy gravely injured by a concrete block. While it made for gripping television, the altruistic act re-ignited a decades-old dilemma — in times of trouble when lives are in jeopardy, should journalists jettison objectivity to save their subjects?
This thorny issue and a host of others are considered with gravity and grace in Donald Margulies’ play “Time Stands Still,” a potent, four-character drama now at Manhattan Theater Club’s Friedman Theatre.
The piece examines what should be a momentous turning point in the career of Sarah, a war photographer critically wounded by a roadside bomb while documenting carnage, both military and civilian (she was in a coma for days; her guide perished in the blast). Sarah has returned to her loft in Williamsburg, which she’s shared for nearly nine years with boyfriend James, a freelance writer who has also ventured to many strife-stricken corners of the globe.
Lucky for us, this is not one of those ponderous “idea plays” where characters become mouthpieces spouting the author’s peeves. In fact, one scene has James railing against “manufactured,” serious-minded plays that help theatergoers feel good about themselves without actually getting involved in life’s tough issues. Margulies has higher aspirations than that.
For at its core, “Time Stands Still” is a love story — a triad of love stories, actually. Sarah (the luminous Laura Linney) and James (Brian D’Arcy James, fresh from his “Shreck” shtick), whose shared passion for showcasing war atrocities is on the wane, must decide whether it makes sense to make their relationship official. And just maybe, whether they should also chart new career paths that don’t involve laying their lives on the line.
The loudmouthed, overbearing Richard (Eric Bogosian) has taken up with Mandy (Alicia Silverstone), a pretty event planner half his age. Is it a case of midlife madness or is she the real deal? When the danger-seeking couple is referred to as “the Sid and Nancy of journalism,” Mandy asks, “Sid and who?” Not a good sign.
And while eons have passed since they were a couple, Richard and Sarah have a warm bond that even their disturbing squabbles can’t dissolve — or so it seems.
Under the direction of Daniel Sullivan, the romance offsets the weighty issues with an uncanny elegance. As the delicate plot unfurls, we find ourselves entranced by the smallest of details. To reveal these points here might break the spell — let’s just say that by the final curtain, churning questions of career, abode, fidelity, marriage, and baby-making are resolved –– though perhaps a little too tidily –– to make for a highly satisfying evening.
The entire two-act play, which occurs “recently,” according to the note in the Playbill, is set in the large loft that looks like it was stylish years ago, but now has acquired a dingy, tired air. The large windows, covered in grime, hint at a drab cityscape beyond. The set was designed by John Lee Beatty.
The caliber of the performances matches the intensity of the play. Linney perfectly embodies the stony, sardonic Sarah, who is as quick to toss back a tumbler of scotch as she is to toss off a barbed wisecrack. Admitting she lives off the suffering of strangers, she seems bent on reliving her childhood traumas in the war zone. “War was my parents’ house all over again, but on a different scale,” she says. Richard suggests that her career choice is a means to assuage her trust-fund guilt. Either way, Sarah believes the act of snapping a photograph freezes time (hence the play’s title), captures truth, and numbs the pain.
Linney has come a long way from her “Tales of the City” days. The triple Emmy winner is poised to hit the big time this fall, starring in a new Showtime series called “The Big C” (the C stands for cancer, by the way).
While you may be tempted to dismiss Silverstone — best known for “Clueless” and Aerosmith music videos — as another neophyte from Hollywood hoping to add heft to her résumé –– remember that she’s no stranger to Broadway; she was in “The Graduate” not long ago. For the most part, Silverstone reprises her appealing perky/ pouty, brains-beyond-the-blonde portrayal from “Clueless,” and it serves her well here.
Not afraid to speak her mind, Mandy berates Sarah for not intervening when she sees children burned from crossfire. And she is outraged that Sarah focuses on the tragic side of life but refuses to pursue the joy. To its credit, “Time Stands Still” locates just enough joy to uplift the intensity.
TIME STANDS STILL
Manhattan Theatre Club
261 W. 47th St.
Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.
Wed., Sat., Sun. at 2 p.m.
Through Mar. 21
$57 to $97; telecharge.com