"What I tried to do with this play," Donald Margulies says, "is capture a sense of the way we live now, to dramatize the things that thinking, feeling, moral people are thinking about and struggle with — the issues of how to be a citizen of the world, how to show compassion, how to be involved, how to be true to yourself and your immediate loved ones."
Margulies is talking about his new drama, Time Stands Still, which world-premieres this month at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles and stars Anna Gunn (HBO's "Deadwood," AMC's "Breaking Bad"), Alicia Silverstone ("Clueless," "Miss Match"), David Harbour ("Quantum of Solace," "Revolutionary Road," "State of Play") and Robin Thomas ("Damages," "Murphy Brown").
"It sounds pretentious, but I don't mean for it to," says Margulies, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2000 for Dinner With Friends. "I'm just trying to deal with what's on a lot of people's minds at this stage of the history of the world. It's a play of ideas. Its setting is domestic, in a New York apartment, but it's really about things that the outside world brings into that apartment. It's about the information age as well — what do we do with what we learn about the world? The play asks a lot of these questions."
At the same time, though, he says, the play is a relationship drama, focusing on two journalists: James, a freelance reporter, and Sarah, his longtime companion, an international photojournalist. They have recently reunited after spending time covering the turmoil in the Middle East, and they try again to match their words and their pictures. "The backdrop is the world of journalism, and it deals with issues like moral responsibility," he says. "But just like my play Sight Unseen was thought to be about art and was really a love story," even though Time Stands Still is replete with issues and questions, "it's the people we care about." The title of the play, Margulies says, comes from the idea that photographs capture a specific moment, that they freeze time. "It seems a fitting, euphonious title," he says, "but I had a hard time arriving at it." The play's original title was The Elephant in the Room, a phrase that often refers to a subject that is obviously present but that everyone is ignoring or pretending isn’t there. "Some people took the title literally, and thought there was really an elephant in the room," Margulies says. "And my wife never liked it. My director, Daniel Sullivan, didn't like it either. I couldn't live with that."
Margulies and Sullivan, a Tony Award winner in 2001 for Proof, have collaborated before, beginning with Dinner With Friends at South Coast Repertory in California and including Brooklyn Boy on Broadway and the 2004 revival of Sight Unseen. "Dan is firm but by no means dogmatic," Margulies says. "I’ve grown to trust his candor over the years. So when he feels strongly about something it's probably for a very good reason."
February is a busy month for Margulies; his play Shipwrecked! An Entertainment - The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself) is having its New York premiere at Primary Stages.
The question of whether Time Stands Still will journey east, however, remains unanswered. "I hope so," he says, "but the economy is making everybody so very scared."
Speaking of questions, Margulies has noted that Time Stands Still raises many. Does he have answers? "People familiar with my work should not expect answers," he says. "They should expect to be moved and stimulated."