Monday, February 1, 2010

Time Stands Still

In his new play, Time Stands Still, Donald Margulies raises some interesting questions about the moral responsibility of journalists, in this case, those covering wars. The play, directed by Daniel Sullivan, is idea-driven rather than plot, of which little exists, or character-driven, since the characters, for the most part, are one dimensional ways of furthering the discussion. Too bad for that last element because the acting is first rate.

Laura Linney is Sarah, a photo journalist with a messianic zeal for her work. If she weren’t in the Middle East snapping pictures of carnage, “who would care,” she asks defensively. “The camera is there to record life. We’re supposed to capture truths.”

She’s also the stereotypical adult child who continues to harbor childhood resentments about her parents. “War was my parents’ house all over again, only on a different scale,” she says.

Even though she has been gravely injured in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq, forcing her to return to New York to recuperate, all she wants is to get back to the action. She has made herself so numbed to other’s suffering that when her longtime live-in lover and fellow war correspondent, James (Brian D’Arcy James, in photo with Linney) suffered a breakdown after witnesses a bombing that killed and injured many people -- their blood and guts splattered into his eyes and mouth -- she chose to stay and work rather than return to New York with him. Only her own nearly fatal injuries bring her back to their Brooklyn loft where the play takes place (set design by John Lee Beatty).

The foils to these two are Richard (Eric Bogosian), Sarah’s editor and former lover, and his considerably younger girlfriend, Mandy (Alicia Silverstone). “There’s young, and there’s embryonic,’” Sarah quips after meeting Mandy, a cheery events planner.

Mandy is the one who finally confronts Sarah and James about their devotion to their work. “There’s so much beauty in the world, but all you see is misery, both of you,” she says.

Later, when Mandy and and Richard have left, Sarah has a momentary questioning of her profession. “We live off the suffering of strangers,” she says to James.

Having spent many years of my life as a hard news reporter, and winning a half dozen awards in the process, I think Sarah’s right about the need for someone to document the suffering. Journalists have their jobs; they’re not supposed to be the relief workers. I’ve never covered a war and never wanted to, but I’ve had someone share her fist at me and threaten me while I was covering a traffic accident, and I’ve had to call parents of a teenage girl who had just been murdered. I do know about intruding into someone’s suffering. While I think accident are over-covered, the journalist has the right to be there because anytime the police are called out, that’s taxpayers money and the circumstance becomes a public matter. In the case of the murdered teen, I was going to be writing about her and needed to give her parents a chance to say something. Many people do want to comment on a loved one. In that case the parents didn’t want to talk, so I expressed my condolences again and hung up. A reporter from a rival paper, The Baltimore Sun, showed up at their door and ended up with an interview. I never regretted not being so intrusive, though. I interviewed her classmates, guidance counselor, priest and the woman who worked with her at her after-school bakery job. By the time I filed my story that night I felt I had known the girl. I knew details like her confirmation name, what she wanted to do after high school, that she sang in the choir at school. I was able to construct a really clear mosaic that was fuller that the Sun’s story. It’s hard to write about people’s pain and misfortune, but it’s a job that needs to be done.

It’s unlikely non-journalists will come away relating to the play as much as I did. My friend Mary, with whom I usually share nearly exact sensibilities, didn’t really care for it. This is probably because the play itself is a bit weak. In spite of all the quarreling -- shouting in the case of Sarah and James -- it lacks any real dramatic tension in that Sarah’s decision about whether to stay in New York and have a family or return to the Middle East is easy to predict.

Time Stands Still is produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club. Tickets, on sale through March 21, can be purchased at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., via and by telephone at (212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250 if outside the New York City metro area. For more information on MTC, visit

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