Time Stands Still, the double-edged title of the Donald Margulies play that opened Jan. 28 at the Samuel J. Friedman, refers, on the one hand, to the split-second permanence caught by a camera and, on the other, to the eternal purgatory where two globe-trotting journalists drag themselves, between wars, to recover from the hell of battle.
Home is a comfortably cluttered Williamsburg loft, and these two enter it gingerly — James Dodd (Brian d'Arcy James), who supplies the words, and Sarah Goodwin (Laura Linney), the pictures for the wars of the world. They wear the atrocities they've witnessed. She is hobbling and shrapnel-marked from a roadside bombing in Iraq; he's less obviously scarred — by a frontline breakdown and, more recently, by the guilt for not being there for her. Whether they like it or not — and you get conflicting views here—peace has broken out for them, and they must face their life together when they no longer share the same goals and wants.
"I always saw this as a love story," Margulies admitted later at the Planet Hollywood after-party. In the year since the play bowed at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, he has been rewriting it to punch up that vision, with Daniel Sullivan, who directed both productions. "The difference between L.A. and New York is really pruning it — it was overwritten, I was trying things out, which is what a world-premiere is for. It was so chockfull that the love story couldn't come to the foreground. It was hard to discern what was foreground and what was background."
The world of wartime journalism, depicted here with much detail and authority, has held fascination for Margulies since he attempted a screenplay on the life of the iconic World War II photographer Robert Capa. In homage, a book of Capa wartime camerawork is presented in the play as a gift to Linney's character who cherishes it on sight. (For an opening-night gift, Manhattan Theatre Club presented the play's cast and crew with the contemporary equivalent to Capa's work — a coffee-table book of war photography by James Nachtwey). Neatly contrasting Couple One is a relatively sunny, stateside pair, safely insolated from the war zone: Richard Ehrlich (Eric Bogosian), an editor pal of the couple, and an out-of-her-element girlfriend half his age, Mandy Bloom (Alicia Silverstone). She's an event-planner, and Linney's character sarcastically supposes she's an event-player, too — only her events are war, famine, genocide, etc.
"This is a fabulous ensemble," purred the contented Margulies. "They're playing like great jazz musicians. I'm just basking in joy, watching them do this play. My admiration and affection for them grow daily, and my appreciation of my collaboration with Dan is something I cherish. I have to write more plays just so I can continue to work with Dan Sullivan. We do have a great time. There's a lot of laughter and trust in the room whenever we work together. And Laura Linney really kinda set the tone for this rehearsal. She's such a great team player. There's no diva nonsense. It was very much a collaborative effort."
[flipbook] Linney fully embraces the all-for-one approach to acting. "It's not just the character I'm playing," she said. "It's the four of us together, and the writing is so good. It has been a joy from the minute I walked into rehearsal the first day, an absolute joy."
She brings equal measures of courage and crankiness to the part — plus a pronounced limp that reminds audiences for most of the play how much physical pain Sarah is in, despite her surface bravado. "I talked to physical therapists," Linney relayed, "and I just thought a lot about what the injury would be, how severe it was, how much healing would happen by the end of the play."
As her lover and gradually-cracking pillar of support, James presents a dimensional character that has grown stronger from the Donald-and-Daniel tinkering in the long trek East. "They worked really hard to take what they had in L.A. and make it better for New York," the actor said. "It's been a real honor to witness that, to see how they have changed the script to support the story. Even from what I began with, there have been changes — which is always a frightening thing but ultimately satisfying."
Bogosian, who started out as a one-man show monologist, blended seamlessly into the ensemble and was later singing the praises of teamwork. "This is the most generous, hardest-working cast I've ever been around," he said. "If they got any nicer, I think they would explode. I don't know if I could handle it. I think we're going to have a nice time continuing to challenge ourselves through the run. This isn't a play that you can take for granted. You have to keep staying on your toes. "I said to Alicia one night as we were walking off stage — I said, 'You know, I do something in this show that I have never done in any show in New York.' And she said, 'What?' — then she said, 'Oh, wait, let me guess: You smile a lot.' I said, 'That's right.' It's unusual for me to kinda relax and to be actually the way I am. He's not like me, really, in life. I get to let a lot of myself out, but I don't think I've ever called my wife 'Honey' or 'Baby' or any of those things in 30 years. Jo Bonney, my wife [the stage director], is a lot more like Laura in the play. But I love spending time with Alicia. I feel like it's a second life up there. We started out on the right foot with this thing from the beginning, and it has just been a pleasure working with her. We both understand what we're doing, who these people are. We've talked a lot about their history and who they are and why do they choose to move it along so quickly."
Silverstone is the only cast member to have made the big trip to Broadway, and her character's positioning as a creature of contrast to the downbeat personas around her still enables her to not only steal a few moments for herself but also to serve as a point of identification for the audience. "I love how truthful she is. I love how she just says it as it is at every given moment. She doesn't have that skill of censoring herself — and rightly so. Sometimes she asks really interesting questions, and sometimes she says things where you think, 'You need to take down a notch, lady.'
"The writing has changed a bit — in fact, the writing changed all the way through, until two or three days ago. It's been distracting and crafting at the same time.
"The one thing I made a conscious decision to do was to make Mandy a lot smarter from the get-go. I want you to believe she has an incredible amount to offer other than her looks. I want your perception of her to change over the course of the play."
Silverstone's surprising culinary skills certainly altered the perception of her immediate cast members and strengthened their bond. "My kitchen here is so small that I asked Laura if I could borrow her kitchen to cook up some meals for all of us." She recently rustled up a segment on "Oprah." "I wrote a book called 'The Kind Diet,'" she said. "It came out in October and is a New York Times bestseller."
Appropriate for the two couples in the center ring, many of the first-nighters came already coupled: Jonathan Cake and Julianne Nicholson, Becky Ann Baker and God of Carnage-bound Dylan Baker, Byron Jennings and Carolyn McCormack, photographer Cindy Sherman and musician David Byrne, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, The Director (Kate Whoriskey of The Miracle Worker) and The Donkey (Daniel Breaker of Shrek), two-time Tony winner Donna Murphy and Shawn Elliott and Superior Donuts' Michael McKean and Annette O'Toole.
Playwrights A. R. Gurney Jr. and Alfred Uhry spent the intermission talking up laudatory storms about Linney and Margulies, while their wives listened. Alan Alda came with his wife and spent his 74th birthday at the opening because Linney is an old friend. Jill Clayburgh and Lily Rabe made their stylish mother-daughter splash, and Frances Sternhagen showed up to support her son, the understudy (Tom Carlin). Lynn Nottage, whose last play, MTC's Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined, covered a contemporary Congolese battlefield that would have been grist for the mill of the characters in Time Stands Still. Currently, she's writing a comedy. "I call it By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, but that title may change. It's about an African-American actress in the '30s trying to get in 'Gone With the Wind.' I think it's going very, very well. Hopefully, it will be ready next fall."
Other first-nighters included Brooke Shields, Michael Cerveris, Susan Birkenhead (whose Minsky's lyrics are currently up for L.A. honors), Vincent D'Onofrio, newly minted Hall-of-Famer and Tony-winning publicist Shirley Herz, illusionist David Blaine, Soho Rep artistic director Sarah Benson (who's directed That Face for MTC this spring), In the Heights director Thomas Kail (who just put in a new "Usnavi" on Broadway — Corbin Bleu of "High School Musical"), Amy Ryan, Tony-winning director Garry Hynes (who's directing Equivocation for MTC right now), Kieran Culkin, Martha Plimpton, "Weeds" star Guillermo Diaz, Anne Kaufman Schneider, Doubt Tony winner Adriane Lenox, Birdie-free Nolan Gerard Funk and the director-choreographer of the L.A.-bound Leap of Faith, Rob Ashford.
The reception of the audience seemed pretty much along the lines of what Margulies had hoped for when he wrote Time Stands Still: "I want audiences to be moved, to have their thoughts provoked, to look at things in life differently — and not just photographs, which the play talks about specifically, but just attitudes as well."