Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner With Friends held a microscope up to the lives of two married couples, a foursome of best friends for a decade.  Throughout the course of the play’s two acts, the audience sees the two couples as they see one another … and as they see themselves in the privacy of their own homes.

Margulies’ brand new drama, Time Stands Still, likewise focuses on two couples, this time unmarried, but that’s pretty much where the resemblance ends, that and the fact that like its predecessor, Time Stands Still is an intelligent, perceptive, often funny, sometimes surprising, and always compelling piece of writing. It is now getting its World Premiere production at the Geffen Playhouse, impeccably directed by Daniel Sullivan with a dream cast composed of Anna Gunn, David Harbour, Alicia Silverstone, and Robin Thomas.

Gunn and Harbour are Sarah and James, a pair of 30something expats who’ve made their lives covering wars, famine, and genocide in the fire kegs you see on the nightly news, most recently Iraq.  Photojournalist Sarah has been sent home to recover from a roadside bomb that killed her “fixer” (i.e. interpreter, driver, friend, etc.) Tareek and left her with “broken bones and a head full of shrapnel.” Welcoming her back to their Brooklyn loft is writer husband James who, it turns out, had already left Iraq at the time of the attack, the victim of a nervous breakdown. Despite a crutch, an arm sling, and a walking cast on one leg, Sarah seems to be on the road to recovery. James too appears to be getting better—except for the recurring nightmares in which he sees Sarah and Tareek in the bombed Humvee and worries that he let both his wife and himself down by not having been there for her at the time.

Today is not a day for reliving painful memories, however. Sarah has arrived back home and best friend Richard (Thomas), photo editor for the Vanity Fair-like magazine which prints both Sarah’s pictures and James’ stories, has come by with his new girlfriend, the decades-younger event planner Mandy (Silverstone).  Mandy is a far cry from Richard’s ex, the dour Astrid. Half Richard’s age and adorable slash slightly ditsy in an “Alicia Silverstone in Clueless” way (the casting is perfect), Mandy has arrived at James and Sarah’s bearing a pair of those metallic balloons, one saying Welcome Home and the other Get Well. (Not knowing which was more appropriate, she’s gone with both, reasoning that balloons are a better gift than flowers, which end up dying, though the balloons do tend to shrivel up as they lose air.)

Although James may likely envy Richard for having this breath of youth and fresh air in his life, Sarah is none too pleased with his choice.  Good friend that she is, though, she can’t come out and say so. Still, remarks like “I think it’s sweet. You always wanted a little girl” leave no doubt about Sarah’s feelings.

More important than his friends’ reaction to his new girlfriend is Richard’s shock at learning that Sarah and James are planning to return to the Middle East following Sarah’s recovery.  Do these two have a death wish? No, replies Sarah. Wars abroad are just like the one she grew up with in her parents’ house, “just on a different scale.”  As for Mandy, she simply can’t understand how Sarah can take pictures of wounded children and not want to help them. “You’re letting them die,” she protests, though Sarah replies that she is helping them by telling the world about them.  “The camera’s there to record life,” she tells Mandy, “not to change it.”

Richard’s news that Mandy is pregnant, immediately followed by their wedding announcement, comes as a bit of a shock to Sarah.  James’ sudden “Will you marry me, Sarah?” is even more out of the blue, though his reasons are practical rather than romantic:  When Sarah was hospitalized, as her boyfriend he had no rights whatsoever. Only a marriage license can prevent this from happening again.

A double wedding soon takes place and the two couples live happily ever after. Right?

Obviously not, or Time Stands Still wouldn’t have a second act, and if you think this review will give anything away about what happens after intermission, you’re mistaken.  In fact, one of the best things about Time Stands Still is its unpredictability.  When the lights go down on Act One, Margulies has given few clues of what will take place next and there are numerous surprising twists and turns once the lights go back up again.

Suffice it to say that by the end of the play, all four characters will have revealed themselves to be quite different people from those we’ve originally assumed them to be, thanks to the richness of Margulies’ writing and the full three-dimensional nature of the characters he has created.

Nowhere is this truer than in the case of Silverstone, making her third Geffen appearance in a role that could have been written for her, so perfect is the fit…and the performance. It helps that Margulies has given her delicious lines, as when she explains, “pro bono, that means we do it for nothing” to people who were probably using the expression when Mandy was still in grade school, or when she tells Sarah in all sincerity, “I prayed for you. It’s not that I believe in God or anything.” Best of all is when Richard attempts to signal Mandy that she needs to stop putting her foot in her mouth, and she responds obliviously, “Honey, you’re hurting my hand.”  Like Silverstone’s breakthrough role in Clueless, however, Mandy is much more than meets the eye, and Silverstone’s blend of naiveté and intelligence makes it possible for her to seem the proverbial dumb blonde one minute and at the next get away with the confident declaration that “I’m not Richard’s midlife crisis.  This is not a passing thing.” When Silverstone recalls a TV documentary in which a film crew filmed the death of a bear cub rather than help it find its nearby mother, sobbing, “You’re letting them die. Why aren’t you helping them,” she is heartbreakingly real.

Gunn gives Sarah a core of steel under an attractive, sexy, feminine exterior, making it entirely believable that this is a woman who’s spent her adult life on the front lines of war zones.  Harbour is a perfect complement to her as James, an outwardly strong man who’s begun to crumble inside from the stress of war and the discovery of a secret his wife has inadvertently given away in an email—with a single pronoun.  A scene between the two in which a seemingly harmless conversation explodes into a fight with long suppressed resentments flaring is particularly powerful, both as writing and as an acting showcase for the superb Gunn and Harbour.

Completing the cast is the always watchable Thomas as Richard, the actor’s slightly acerbic quality making him the perfect counterpoint to best friend James’ all-American-boy earnestness.  Thomas and Silverstone work particularly well together, making their May-September romance believable. It’s clear what each sees in the other, and that despite the odds against them, this is a relationship that is likely to work.

John Lee Beatty’s finely detailed upscale Brooklyn loft is an exquisite example of what a first-rate scenic designer working with a Getty-budget can achieve. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting design, Jon Gottlieb’s sound design, and Peter Golub’s incidental music all contribute to enhancing Margulies’ writing and Sullivan’s direction.  Rita Ryack’s costumes are just what you’d expect these four people to have bought, with Silverstone’s slightly quirky ensembles deserving special mention.

Dining With Friends is a tough act to follow, but Time Stands Still comes close. As both a “contemporary-as-today’s-headlines” story and as a personal drama of two relationships, one just beginning and one possibly crumbling before our eyes, this brand new play is a winner all around.

Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.

–Steven Stanley
February 12, 2009
 Photos: Michael Lamont

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