Brian d'Arcy James and Laura Linney in Time Stands Still
(© Joan Marcus)
Brian d'Arcy James and Laura Linney in Time Stands Still
(© Joan Marcus)
How does one cope with real-life horrors -- particularly when it's your job to document them? Donald Margulies' layered and thought-provoking new drama Time Stands Still, making its Broadway debut at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, centers on two veteran journalists who have braved danger in some of the most violent political hot spots in the world. However, while they must come to terms with their experiences overseas, they also find that domestic life can be equally challenging.

As the play begins, photographer Sarah (Laura Linney) and writer James (Brian d'Arcy James) are returning from the Middle East, with the former bearing the physical scars from a roadside bombing and the latter still recuperating from a mental breakdown due to witnessing another wartime atrocity. The two have been an unmarried couple for eight-and-a-half years, and the forced downtime in their Williamsburg apartment (nicely rendered by scenic designer John Lee Beatty) causes them to reevaluate not only their relationship, but the trajectory of their careers.

As a counterpoint, we are also introduced to Sarah's photo editor Richard (Eric Bogosian) -- a long-time friend of the couple -- who is newly involved with a much younger woman, Mandy (Alicia Silverstone). Sarah initially dismisses her as "a lightweight," but Mandy's outsider perspective allows her to pose provocative questions, like why doesn't Sarah physically intervene to alleviate the suffering she photographs and whether or not the public really needs to read yet another "bummer story" about a situation that most ordinary people can't affect.

While Mandy's naïve queries are presented somewhat as comic relief, the script demonstrates that both James and Sarah ask themselves similar things, and their more complex grappling with the ethical aspects of their reportage is one of the production's strengths. Margulies goes even further, making a parallel to the efficacy of a certain kind of documentary political theater. James dismisses such works as "Hell on earth made palatable -- packaged -- as an evening's entertainment" and claims that their purpose is to assuage liberal guilt rather than create any kind of impact on the people who go to view them.

Linney delivers a powerful performance, demonstrating the grit and stubbornness that makes Sarah admirable but not always likable. Her determination to make a full recovery and return to covering war zones is sometimes made to sound more like an addiction than a noble calling. But while Sarah has a strong will, Linney also lets us see her inner doubts and the tough exterior usually on display makes the character's occasional moments of vulnerability even more moving.

For his part, d'Arcy James is completely convincing as a principled man with a fervent belief in the good that his work does, who is also tired and wanting a more comfortable life than he's had so far. The part of Mandy could easily come across as a one-dimensional stereotype, but Silverstone provides several nuances to the character that fleshes the role out. Bogosian has great rapport with his co-stars, showing subtle shades in Richard's interaction with Sarah and James, as he both craves their approval and demands that they respect him regardless.

The play, tightly directed by Daniel Sullivan, is full of interesting ideas, but Margulies wisely avoids making his work solely about issues. Instead, he gives us a very human story about love and war, and the difficulties that arise when the central characters must eventually choose between the two.