Time Stands Still, the absorbing, first-rate play by Donald Margulies at New York’s Cort Theatre, has a powerful sense of urgency because it is contemporary and compelling. I am convinced, after having seen it a second time, that this work is one of the gems of the current Broadway season.
The production, masterfully directed by Daniel Sullivan, begins with the arrival at a Brooklyn loft (aptly designed by John Lee Beatty and moodily lit by Rita Ryack) of severely wounded Sarah (Laura Linney), a photojournalist, and James (Brian D’Arcy James), her live-in companion. Sarah was physically injured by a roadside bomb that killed her interpreter during her tenure in the Middle East, and James, a war correspondent who returned to the States before Sarah did, was emotionally damaged by his own horrific experiences.
When the curtain rises and Sarah, on crutches and wrapped in bandages, is helped into the apartment, James declares that “the Eagle has landed.” He wants to marry Sarah, even though she has admitted to having had an affair with Tariq, her translator. But the ambivalent Sarah is already contemplating a return to the battlefield, and there are hints that she is not ready to settle for domesticity. Although she has just arrived at a presumably safe destination, Sarah feels restless and unfulfilled. It is this conflict that propels the provocative plot.
“The last thing I want to do is chat.... I wish you could have put him off,” Sarah says when she learns that Richard (Eric Bogosian), her longtime friend and publisher, will be visiting with his current girlfriend, Mandy (Christina Ricci), a somewhat daft party planner. When the guests arrive, we see that the effects of war have detrimentally affected Sarah’s social relationships. “Sometimes we work pro bono for charities,” Mandy explains, immediately adding, “That means we do it for nothing.” The empty talk continues as she explains that she once planned a party in one of her favorite spaces. “What’s the word again, for all the mummies and stuff? Sar....” “Sarcophagi,” the others shout. Mandy continues: “It’s like you’re really there, in this spooky ancient place. King Tut’s tomb or something. Really intense.” “I bet,” Sarah impatiently interjects. “I guess you can say I’m into events, too.” “You are?” The young woman is genuinely curious. “Wars, famines, genocides,” Sarah adds sardonically. Although Mandy smiles, you see that she feels the effects of the verbal stabbing.
Finally, when Sarah exhibits her photographs of the war zone, Richard praises her work. But Mandy is horrified by the shot of a mother crying over her child and asks whether the boy is dead. “Not yet. He was in shock. He died a few minutes later,” Sarah explains. Mandy is furious that Sarah took the photo instead of rushing the boy to a hospital. Rescue workers were there to remove the boy, we’re told, and he “would have died no matter what I did.... If it weren’t for people like me...the ones with the cameras...who would know? Who would care?”
Eventually, however, Mandy, earlier derided as being “embryonic,” begins to prove that our first impressions of her were misguided, that she is far more shrewd than we’d been led to believe. We witness Sarah, whose dilemma becomes astoundingly intense, making her decision about whether she’ll settle for domesticity or return to the field of battle.
All four actors give remarkably commanding performances, but it is Linney who makes us realize how transporting and electrifying an actor can be. It’s called inspiration, and it’s why we go to the theatre.