In Donald Margulies’s Time Stands Still, two characters, longtime partners in a similar line of work—she’s a photojournalist, he’s a freelance writer—sit at opposite ends of a table in their Williamsburg apartment, their respective laptops open in front of them. “I just sent you something,” one says. The other, after reading the missive that’s just arrived, laughs quietly, not wanting to give the sender too much credit, but unable to hide that the joke has tickled her. The moment is small and throwaway, but it opens a window onto a broader, stormier vista: It’s the seemingly minor amusements that sometimes get you through a day, maybe even a marriage. An e-mail sent across a dining table manages to fulfill E.M. Forster’s entreaty to “only connect.”
There’s a mournful tug beneath the surface of Time Stands Still, but the material, directed here by Daniel Sullivan, is also colloquial, lively, and inquisitive without being preachy. Laura Linney plays Sarah, who’s just returned home—in one piece, barely—after encountering a roadside bomb in Iraq. Her partner, James (Brian d’Arcy James), who had also been working in Iraq as a war correspondent, is riven with guilt because he wasn’t at her side when it happened; he’d had a nervous breakdown and returned to America before her. The couple’s closest friend is Eric Bogosian’s Richard, a magazine editor who has long supported their work, although conflicts in his corner of the industry are making that increasingly difficult. The wild card in this foursome is Richard’s new and much younger girlfriend, Mandy (Alicia Silverstone, in a bright, sharp-edged performance), a cheerful event planner who strives not to worry too much about horrific events beyond her control.
Margulies, a 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner for Dinner With Friends, doesn’t make Mandy the butt of the joke; she’s more the questioning soul of play. And this is a work that asks lots of questions—chiefly, about how much guilt and responsibility over wartime tragedies individuals can carry without going mad—while maintaining enough humility to know that it can’t answer them. Instead of pontificating, the characters bicker, accuse, and snipe, but they also defend one another, often tenderly. They also come off as believable relics of old-school, hard-core journalism, principled individuals who have perhaps poured too much of their hearts into what they do. James plays his character as an almost-lost soul who yearns to feel more at home in Brooklyn than in Iraq; Bogosian has the slightly bowed, but not unbroken spirit of a guy who’s fought the good fight in too many editorial meetings. And Linney, in particular, navigates her character’s interior minefields with great delicacy. Sarah first hobbles onto the scene with a scowl, wearing the mask of a person you suspect never had much use for her fellow human beings, even before her leg was shattered and her face peppered with shrapnel. But with little more than that elusive Linney half-smile, she betrays Sarah’s well-hidden wellspring of kindness and decency. At one point Sarah looks at Mandy not with contempt or condescension, but with outright, glowing joy in the idea that someone could take so much pleasure in the world—and a bit of sadness that that person can’t be herself.