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January 29, 2010

Time Stands Still

by Jesse North
The number one lesson I have learned so far this Broadway season is the benefit of seeing a show while it’s still in previews. Time Stands Still, which boasts four above-the-title names, should be a big draw for student rushers. While the drama is selling well right off the bat (it sold 94 percent of its tickets in the week ending January 24), the rush crowd was nonexistent on the Sunday that I attended.

I arrived at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre at 11:55 a.m. Yes, this is the dreaded Sunday rush (box offices open at noon, forcing rush crowds for popular shows to wait out in the cold an extra two hours). I, however, didn’t stay out in the cold. Although it was a gamble, I used my judgment and assumed that this show would not yet be pulling a large rush crowd, while still in previews. I haven’t seen a lot of advertising yet for the show, and some people I’ve talked with didn’t know it was showing yet. There was no one waiting at the box office and the doors were already open when I arrived. I walked up to the box office attendant and purchased my tickets with ease. It ranks among the easiest rushes I’ve ever done. Time Stands Still has a student rush policy for $26.50 a piece, up to two tickets per ID. Tickets go on sale when the box office opens.

Although there are four stars inhabiting the four roles in this show, I was most excited to see it because it was written by Donald Margulies. For years, I’ve been a huge fan of the HBO movie Dinner With Friends, which is based on his play and for which he also wrote the screenplay (the play won the Pulitzer for Drama in 2000). Margulies is excellent at writing dialogue for couples, particularly for scenes in which they evaluate the fundamentals of their relationship. What Margulies does for Andy MacDowell and Dennis Quaid in Dinner, he does nearly as well for Laura Linney and Brian d’Arcy James in Time.

Playing two journalists who have been reporting for years in war-torn countries, Sarah and James (played by Linney and James) return to the Williamsburg, Brooklyn apartment they share after Sarah’s release from the hospital. She has spent weeks in a coma, after sustaining injuries in a car bomb explosion while on assignment. They have returned home to resume their lives, but Sarah’s face and arms are marred with shrapnel scars from the explosion. The physical markings are only half the reminders that are holding Sarah back from truly returning home.

Rush seats for Time Stands Still are in the last row of the mezzanine. Until Sarah’s scars were mentioned, I had no idea that she had been disfigured in the explosion. Linney’s makeup is not discernable from the back row, so rushers, while this is a great price and a breezy experience, the seats are among the worst in the house.

Sarah, a photojournalist, explains early on that when she’s looking through her camera, about to snap a picture, she feels as if “time stands still.” Her job and the horrors she has seen while doing it has also had the same effect on her life. Her mind is frozen in the violent environments where she works, making it impossible for her to move forward with her life. Her growth has come to a standstill. Her long-term boyfriend, James, hasn’t been halted by the visions of their work. He is ready to move on with his life, starting a family with Sarah. They aren’t on the same page.

Arriving as a taunting embodiment of what James longs for, Sarah’s and his friend and editor, Richard, comes for a visit with his pregnant girlfriend Mandy (a grossly underused Eric Bogosian and Alicia Silverstone). Their arrival forces Sarah and James to examine the possibility of what their futures together hold.

Time Stands Still is really a mirrored reflection of Dinner With Friends. In Dinner, the failure of the secondary couple’s relationship (Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear) exists as a turning point for the primary couple’s future—a make-or-break moment. In Time, it’s the success of Richard and Mandy’s relationship that acts as a crossroad for Sarah and James. There’s a formula here for Margulies, but it doesn’t have the tremendous results that it did for Dinner With Friends.

In Dinner, Collette and Kinnear’s characters are the catalysts for the choices that the primary couple must make, but they also thrive as complicated, three-dimensional players. In Time, Richard and Mandy are completely disposable. They do so little that they could have served the same purpose as off-stage presences. It’s a crime to enlist the amazing talent of Bogosian (a hurricane in the play and film Talk Radio, which he also wrote) and the charming Silverstone to serve as added scenery. I hope these two have hobbies, because they aren’t going to be spread too thin during the play’s limited run through March 21.

Sarah and James, however, have great depth, and listening to their different views on life that create this fault line in their relationship is engaging. James concedes that the world is cruel, but that it’s not a reason for Sarah and himself to deny themselves happiness, and I want Sarah to see his way. But Sarah’s position that typical conventions seem trivial when compared to the poverty and terror they’ve seen is frustratingly understandable as well. Linney illustrates how weighted Sarah’s conscious is. This is not a woman that falls asleep easily. Despite a desire to see these two prevail, Linney at times plays Sarah as a mega-bitch, and it’s difficult to see what James sees in this hard woman.

The most striking element of Time Stands Still is the idea of people who have seen war (in addition to soldiers, which is a more commonly-examined theme) who are unable to resume normal life. James tells Sarah that she shuns happiness out of guilt for the sorrow that they know still exists, unchanged in volatile countries. Sarah’s life is stunted, because she has been injured by the truth—truth that she knows America’s primetime television audiences aren’t aware of.

Time Stands Still has a great central idea, yet with half of its four-person cast being undeveloped, the play can only go so far. Plot points and dialogue were predictable throughout the duration, even down to the blocking of the play’s final moments. While still a thought-provoking and well-acted production (courtesy of Linney and James), Time Stands Still left me wanting to sit down for Dinner With Friends.

Play: B / Rush: B

Photo: Joan Marcus

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