Thursday, March 8, 2012

Time Stands Still at the Lyric Stage

Laura Latreille and Barlow Adamson.

I'm torn over the current production of Donald Margulies' Time Stands Still at the Lyric Stage, because basically it's worth seeing, even though it's a disappointment - it simply isn't as good as it could (or should) be.  Actually, that goes for the play itself, as well as the production.  This playwright has been incrementally, but steadily, pulling ahead of the Off-Broadway pack over the past few years, if only because since his Pulitzer-winning Dinner with Friends, he has produced no real embarrassments, and nothing even as questionable in quality as, say, Superior Donuts.  You can count on a Margulies script to be thoughtful, highly crafted, lean enough to be producible, and cleverly built around chewy, personality-driven roles that will attract TV and movie stars.  (The initial New York production was memorable for a radiant turn in the lead role by Laura Linney.)

At the same time, despite his commitment to quality maintenance, Margulies never quite breaks through to true greatness, and Time Stands Still gives you a pretty good idea of why.  The script takes on what we used to call an "issue" - in this case, the role of the war photographer, in particular the role of the war photographer in Iraq, from whence photojournalist "Sarah Goodwin" (Laura Latreille) has retreated, sprayed with shrapnel, to nurse her wounds.  She does so in the arms of her long-time lover, James (Barlow Adamson), who likewise retreated from the same battle shortly before her injury (and after a de-stabilizing psychological break).

That's a lot to chew on, of course, right there - particularly given that James, though riven with guilt, has decided that it's time for him to leave the world's war zones behind for good - preferably with Sarah by his side - even as Sarah herself struggles with the fact that she may actually be addicted to the kind of intense moral rush that only the killing fields can provide.  The temperature of this embedded conflict (sorry) rises to a simmer when they're visited by an old mentor of Sarah's, Richard (Jeremiah Kissel) who has taken up with a sweet-natured, twenty-something bimbette, Mandy (Erica Spyres).   Having heard that Sarah is recovering from shrapnel wounds, Mandy has brought her some bright silver balloons, which float like clueless consumerist blips in the hipster cave of Sarah's loft.  "I've been praying for you," Mandy says earnestly.  "Which is weird, because it's not like I believe in God or anything!"

Yessss.  Clearly Margulies has at least two targets in his dramatic sights here; Richard and Mandy are almost too emblematic of the self-absorbed America that went to the mall after 9/11 and never came back; to them, the war in Iraq was "Operation Freedom," and - well, it's just so sad what happened over there, but it's not like it's anybody's fault, you know?  Margulies's portrait of Richard is perhaps even more pointed than his hatchet job on Mandy - for what kind of old hand worth his press pass would be happy to cuddle at home while his protégée risks her neck?

But all this is complicated by the deeper question - risks her neck for what?  The press has been in more personal danger than ever during our recent Middle East conflicts, of course, but those risks have perhaps counted for less than they ever have before.  For their Iraq coverage was hopelessly (and notoriously) biased - although Margulies never mentions this - and what honest reporting they did do was often ignored at home.  In short, the media failed utterly in the Iraqi debacle, and things have only gotten worse since then; the collusion of even such high profile outlets as the New York Times with the lies of the Bush administration set up a situation in which the press's abandonment of its constitutional duty became the new popular baseline for its function, which only facilitated Roger Ailes' ongoing corrosion of the American body politic via Fox News and its ilk.

Seen in this light, are Sarah's political ideals, her hope of bearing witness for the world to the horrors of war, a hopelessly self-indulgent political dream?  Is she, in the end, just an atrocity junkie?  It's a highly charged question, but alas, Margulies never really asks it in political terms; indeed, he redacts almost all political specificity from his drama, and casts Sarah's and James' dilemma - should they return to the front, or make their garden grow at home, now that they're past their first youth? - as purely a personal case study.  There is never any suggestion, for instance, that Sarah's commitment to honest photojournalism is needed now more than ever (we need fewer Judith Millers, and more Sarah Goodwins!) - and that such political considerations might be what should tip the balance in her career decisions.  Instead, ironically enough, we get a long, slightly forced critique of Sarah's commitment to a profession which, in the end, the free world requires.

So let me be blunt - I feel that Margulies is being politically, intellectually, and artistically dishonest in this play, and that colors it for me as drama, despite my appreciation of the playwright's technical subtlety.  For Time Stand Still is indeed a rewarding actor's exercise, and it's cannily constructed (although it often turns on abrupt, unspoken epiphanies and emotional shifts).  I even appreciate the partial validity - partial - of the politically "mature"(if essentially consumerist) mindset that Margulies imagines he is conjuring - that is, one in which every moral issue has been re-cast as a personality issue.

Still, sometimes Margulies has to edit himself pretty severely to keep the political surround off-stage during his debates (particularly given the profiles he has constructed for Sarah and Richard). When Mandy wails "What am I supposed to do with this?" when confronted by one of Sarah's terrible images,  or when she asks Sarah how she can take a picture of an atrocity without putting down her camera and helping out instead, we sympathize with her reaction, of course (naïve as it may be). But we also wonder why Sarah is so slow on the ball that she can't simply retort, "But aren't you, Mandy, also turning away from these people?  And aren't these things being done in your name?  Aren't your taxes paying for them?   So isn't it up to you, not me, to decide how to take action?"

But Margulies never goes there - even though he sketches enough moral awareness into Mandy to make the questions dramatically viable - and thus Time Stands Still slides into high-end soap opera; hey, the United States may have political issues - but Sarah's got issues, if you know what I mean, and that's more important!  It doesn't help that at the Lyric, Margulies' drama has been helmed by Scott Edmiston, who may be the most apolitical director in the city (if not the world).  I can't deny that Edmiston's "Get a pedicure, sister, and you'll feel better!" mentality isn't somewhat in alignment with Margulies', but this is one of those cases when some directorial opposition would go a long way toward expanding the seeming profile of a text.

And unfortunately, the talented Laura Latreille has styled her performance to Edmiston's usual specs, and thus has made Sarah a good deal less likable than she should be.  On Broadway, of course, Laura Linney saved the playwright from himself by bringing her own radiant sense of decency to the fore, which cut against the bitterness latent in his script.  Latreille, however, is more naturally drawn toward the dark side, and thus we never believe in Sarah's idealistic commitment to her profession - or her idealistic commitment to James, either, which leaves Barlow Adamson sometimes spinning his wheels (although he does it pretty well).  Jeremiah Kissel and Erica Spyres manage better by Richard and Mandy - partly, you feel, because they've got the playwright and director on their side.  Indeed, this could be a breakout performance for Spyres, whom we've only occasionally seen in the limelight since she won an IRNE for The Light in the Piazza.  Here, more often than not, the play belongs to her, which I'm afraid I have to say is a sad state of affairs; if only Mandy were indeed the kind of character who counted as a "stretch" for this talented young actress!

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