Theater Review: Time Stands Still

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Donald Margulies' new play takes place in the hermetically sealed world of a journalistic couple -- a photographer recovering from injuries suffered in a roadside bombing (Anna Gunn) and a shell-shocked reporter (David Harbour) -- whose relationship had been born and lived out in the terror and strife of the Middle East.

Returning home to her Brooklyn apartment, the two are confronted with life on the home front which they initially feel confident in facing. The microscopic irritant in their apparent oyster is Alicia Silverstone, the new partner of their longtime publisher (Robin Thomas). An apparent airhead, Silverstone raises troubling moral and ethical issues which unintentionally push their relationship to the edge of a precipice.

The dialogue is authentic -- sad and funny, outraged and tender. Margulies obviously cares deeply about his characters and their ability to function on a home front free of any reference to political controversy. He is thereby able to focus on the implications of a post-Bush world in which hope and salvation require facing up to the details, not the causes, of the horror. Margulies captures the power of this transforming process, telling us in the process that it is not only the soldiers who have been profoundly affected by being on the front lines.

Margulies has structured the story -- simple on the surface, but gaining complexity by being laid over multiple mine fields of experience, betrayal and love -- with a clear road map. Faced with constraints of time and space, however, the playwright hurries Gunn in particular, and Harbour to a lesser extent, through the navigation of their respective emotional voyages.

Director Daniel Sullivan proves adept at choreographing the various configurations on the very large and (not inappropriately) cluttered set when all four actors are on stage. But when it's only Gunn and Harbour, their movements are too often static and lacking energy. And as they grow apart and become separated by the wide dimensions of the physical stage, the symbolic use of the visual image gets in the way of their working together.

The best work is done in the opening act as Gunn ("Deadwood," "Breaking Bad") and Harbour ("Revolutionary Road," "State of Play" and a Tony nominee) pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, courageously risk real vulnerability for the first time in their relationship and reveal truths that they hoped would remain hidden or at least unspoken.

As she did in her last appearance at the Geffen (David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow"), Silverstone almost steals the show as her character evolves from a slightly older version of her brain-strained "Clueless" self to a more insightful maturity, although she and Sullivan might want to reconsider the incongruous whining tone that comes and goes in Act II. Thomas is genuinely sympathetic as an older man who is trying to balance his midlife crisis with all the other crises a New Yorker must face on a daily basis.

At the end, we are left with compassion and understanding for people not so different from ourselves who survive a terrible external reality beyond their control -- and whose collateral damage consists of broken bones, nightmares and heartbreaking domestic woes -- only by skating its gravest implications.

Venue: Geffen Playhouse, Westwood (Through March 15)
Cast: Anna Gunn, David Harbour, Alicia Silverstone, Robin Thomas
Playwright: Donald Margulies
Director: Daniel Sullivan
Scenic designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Rita Ryack
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound designer: Jon Gottlieb