The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good 'Time'

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

The first-rate new play Time Stands Still, commissioned by the Geffen Playhouse — which has also given it a first-rate production — was originally titled The Elephant in the Room. The reason I mention this is that in all the critical response to the play, both in print and on-line, there appears to be an elephant in the chatroom.

Most critics and bloggers have praised the acting in Time Stands Still, but a consistent refrain has been that Donald Margulies' new play is very conventional, that it could use polishing, and that its characters too often become mouthpieces for the playwright's desire to provoke.

All of these things are more or less true, but the same has been initally said of many award-winning American dramas. Sadly, this new play seems to be a victim of high expectations. Perhaps it's because it was postponed a year, or maybe its because Margulies' style seemed fresher ten years ago when he won the Pulitzer Prize for Dinner with Friends, another well-made four-person play that is of similar quality to Time Stands Still; my guess though, is that because this play deals with the Iraq war, it is impossible to avoid some of its clichés and arguments that have been repeated over the past six years. But whatever the reasons, the elephant that no wants seems to want to point out is: a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright has delivered a new work equally as good as his previous, celebrated dramas — and LA is the first place to see it. Regardless of its minor problems, the world premiere of Time Stands Still is a giant net positive for L.A. Theater and the Geffen Playhouse.

Now, as Iraq eventually recedes from headlines and dinner conversations, my guess is that the polemics of Time Stands Still will seem less jarring and Margulies' pinpoint depiction of humans trying to make sense of their lives won't get crowded out. Future productions of this play will gain then from the distance of time, but then they won't have Anna Gunn or David Harbour in the lead roles. Time may indeed stand still, as the play suggests, but the careers of these two actors probably will not.

Gunn plays Sarah, a trust-fund baby who buries her privilege behind a rough and tumble career as a war photographer. Sarah gravitates towards refugee camps with the same passion that others of her generation are drawn to sales at Barneys. Gunn's Sarah is intense, complicated and fierce—we can see why her partner, James (also a war correspondent) is both in love and afraid of her. It's a volatile partnership that looks and feels like real love due to the performers' chemistry.

James is played by David Harbour, who in this role—as in last year's film Revolutionary Road — seems to be auditioning to be this era's Karl Malden. The big, hulking Harbour is much more at ease in this part of the shambling, sensitive husband than he was as the preppie spouse Nick in his Tony-nominated turn in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Here at the Geffen, Harbour is masterful at subtly conveying the limits of his character's strength. The play's arc carefully charts James' failures, which may look minor or ordinary, but Harbour makes each wound feel tragic.

Also strong in a supporting role is Alicia Silverstone. After two subpar efforts in a pair of Mamet plays, Silverstone's third Geffen appearance is a success. She plays Mandy, the younger girlfriend of Sarah's photo editor (also acted with finesse by Robin Thomas). It's a role that could easily be dismissed as “the ditzy blonde,” but Margulies clearly wants her to be something more and Silverstone delivers a beguiling mix of maternal strength and pampered naïveté. Director Daniel Sullivan makes all of these proceedings — even the one or two rants that feel like something Margulies thought about sending to the Huffington Post — feel as natural as if they were happening in the living room of an old friend.

Donald Margulies' Time Stands Still runs through Sunday at the Geffen Playhouse.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Michael Lamont