Anna Gunn, David Harbour, Alicia Silverstone
and Robin Thomas in Time Stands Still
(© Michael Lamont)
Anna Gunn, David Harbour, Alicia Silverstone
and Robin Thomas in Time Stands Still
(© Michael Lamont)
In less time than it takes for a sharp gasp of breath the click of a camera captures a split second of an event: the wonder on a new mother's face, the beaming pride of a college graduate, or the horrific realization that in the next split second your body will be violently blasted into millions of bits of blood and bone. Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Margulies explores this phenomenon both literally and figuratively in his world premiere play, Time Stands Still, now playing at the Geffen Playhouse. And while he covers this landscape with great skill in this four-character drama, there's a certain subtlety missing that would be useful in easing some of the more obvious conventions that are used.

Without question, director Daniel Sullivan elicits fine work from his clearly talented cast: Anna Gunn, David Harbour, Alicia Silverstone, and Robin Thomas. But there is also a curious sense of distance between them and the audience. It feels as if the audience is behind an invisible camera, watching the stories of these characters unfold but never becoming fully invested in what's happening.

Sarah (Gunn) and James (Harbour) are a photojournalist team who have been together eight years and who document the Middle-Eastern wars. They take their shots (she with pictures, he with words) without apology, both in their work and in their tight, but unmarried, relationship. As the show begins, James has just brought a badly wounded Sarah home to their New York apartment to recover after a roadside bomb left her comatose for two weeks.

Meanwhile, their close friend Richard (Robin Thomas), the photo editor of the unnamed magazine for which they work, is in the midst of a mid-life crisis. He is currently finding solace with an event planner named Mandy (Alicia Silverstone), a guileless and much younger woman who is given to sudden and somewhat furious emotional outbursts -- perhaps because she is pregnant.

While the men do have their moments of disagreement, it's hyper-independent Sarah and co-dependent Mandy who wage the biggest battles over the thematic issues of the play. In one of two major confrontations in Act I, Sarah angrily defends the purpose and value of her work to Mandy, who is falling apart over what she sees as the inability of photographers to step out from behind the camera and prevent whatever atrocity is in front of them. In Act II, Margulies shifts the battleground closer to home. Both couples are now married, but for Sarah and James, the change proves particularly difficult as flashbacks and flashes of realization begin to illuminate closely held secrets.

Lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski appropriately provides both homey warmth and stark nightmare fear. And whether by choice or not, there are two notable omissions on scenic designer John Lee Beatty's lovely brick-walled apartment set: neither clocks nor any of Sarah's photographs are anywhere to be seen.