"Time Stands Still": Laughter amid the war stories

GRETE: All I am suggesting, Mr. Waxman, is that the artist, like the Jew, prefers to see himself as alien from the mainstream culture. For the Jewish artist to acknowledge that the contrary is true, that he is not an alien, but rather, assimilated into that mainstream culture —

JONATHAN: Wait a minute, wait a minute. What is this Jewish stuff creeping in here?

— From Sight Unseen, by Donald Margulies

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies has described his play Time Stands Still as “essentially a love story.” The play centers on the relationship between two journalists, James and Sarah, who have returned to their Brooklyn apartment from assignments in Iraq.

Sarah Goodwin, a veteran news photographer, has sustained serious injuries from a roadside bomb blast — in the play’s opening scene, she is on crutches, leg in a cast, an arm in a sling, her face pocked by shrapnel scars. James Dodd, her longtime romantic companion, tends to her recovery; and it emerges that he had some kind of mental breakdown, and left the war zone before Sarah was injured.

Richard, a magazine editor who has had a lengthy personal and professional relationship with James and Sarah, pays a visit to the couple. He is accompanied by his much younger girlfriend, Mandy, who leavens the serious goings-on with her ditzy questions and commentary.

In a recent phone interview with the Jewish World from his home in New Haven, Conn., Margulies responded to a question about Richard’s young girlfriend, who provokes roars of laughter among playgoers.

Left: Donald Margulies: Writing dialogue is a little bit like improvisation. (Photo: Courtesy of Geffen Playhouse)

“Mandy is an interesting character — I’m actually very fond of Mandy,” Margulies commented. “She, in a way, becomes the stand-in for the audience. She’s the one who asks the questions that the audience is thinking. I’ve been blessed by a couple of definitive performances, from Alicia Silverstone, who created the role, and from Christina Ricci, who replaced her on Broadway. They possessed the right kind of warmth and spirit that the audience immediately feels affection toward.”

Margulies added, regarding Mandy: “I feel in many ways that she’s sort of the moral center of the play, which comes as a surprise to some people who have already prejudged her because of a certain kind of naiveté that she possesses. But I prefer to see it as a kind of innocence and guilelessness and lack of judgment that she possesses. In a way, she is kind of a pure spirit, who provides a wonderful contrast to the more hardboiled, seasoned cynical conflict reporters in her midst.”

Time Stands Still was commissioned by the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, where it premiered in 2009. About a year later the play opened on Broadway, in two limited runs, Margulies explained.

“Now the play is being done all over the country,” he said. “I’m proud to say it’s one of the most produced plays in the country this year.”

As for his experience with the famed repertory theater in Minneapolis, Margulies noted, “This is my first time at the Guthrie…. It’s a theater that I always wanted to be embraced by, and I feel that with this play I have an opportunity for that to happen.”

Margulies was in town last week to see a preview performance of Time Stands Still, which has its opening night on Friday, April 13.

He met Joe Dowling, the Guthrie’s artistic director and director of Time Stands Still, a year ago to discuss the play’s production. “I met the cast via Skype,” he said, when we talked. “I’ve been to the Twin Cities exactly twice.”

So, now it is three times, and Margulies likely will return at some point to visit his son, Miles, a freshman at Macalester College in St. Paul.

Although this is the first Margulies play staged by the Guthrie, the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company presented his play Sight Unseen in 1999. And last year, the Theatre Garage in Minneapolis produced two Margulies plays, Brooklyn Boy and Collected Stories.

Returning to Time Stands Still (which I’m looking forward to seeing performed on Sunday, after having read it), I referred the playwright to a scene early on where Richard is aghast to learn that Sarah (who was played by Laura Linney on Broadway) intends to return to the war zone as soon as she can.

Richard quips to Mandy, regarding his intrepid journalist friends: “They’re the Sid and Nancy of journalism” — and then explains to Mandy who punk rocker Sid Vicious and his girlfriend were.

So, how does a playwright come up with a line like that?

“Writing dialogue is a little bit like improvisation,” replied Margulies. “You’re playing both roles in your head; and once you get a grasp of who a character is, the dialogue begins to take on a kind of natural rhythm. So, the ‘Sid and Nancy’ remark seemed perfectly in keeping with who Richard was, who [Sarah and James] are, what their relationship is, and it seemed appropriate at that moment. It’s kind of mysterious how these things happen; but they do come out of a kind of an improvisational fugue state, that is writing plays.”

Asked about Jewish content in his plays, Margulies replied that Jewish themes are a “primary ingredient” in a number of his plays. He mentioned Sight Unseen and Collected Stories, along with The Loman Family Picnic, The Model Apartment and What’s Wrong With This Picture (which begins in a home where shiva has just concluded).

Margulies told the AJW that “a lot of these plays are dealing with one aspect or another of the Jewish experience, which finds its way into some but not all of my plays.”

And he mentioned that his new play, Coney Island Christmas — which will have its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse later this year — is “essentially a Jewish Christmas play.” It is based on a story, “The Loudest Voice,” by the late renowned author Grace Paley.

When he’s not writing plays, Margulies teaches playwriting at Yale University.

“I deal with young people a lot, and young talent a lot,” he said. “It’s a particular pleasure for me to see some of my former students finding their way in the world of show business. I’ve been teaching about 20 years now.”

With Time Stands Still at the Guthrie, local audiences likely are in for an exhilarating theater experience.

“What I tried to do with this play is capture a sense of the way we live now,” said Margulies in an earlier statement, which was quoted by Playbill.com. “To dramatize the things that thinking, feeling, moral people are thinking about and struggle with — the issues of how to be a citizen of the world, how to show compassion, how to be involved, how to be true to yourself and your immediate loved ones.”

At the conclusion of our telephone interview, Margulies emphasized that despite the weighty issues discussed by his characters, Time Stands Still is a “very entertaining play.”

“You just said that, even in reading it, you find a lot of humor in it; and I think that when people hear that it’s about journalists coming back from covering the war in Iraq, they kind of groan, because there’s a certain amount of war fatigue in our culture right now. But the play, I think, is a much bigger and more universal play than just about the wartime experience: it’s really about relationships, it’s about marriage and friendship and all those things that are part of the mix.”

And there’s Mandy.

When the verbal sniping among the older characters reaches a crescendo, she says: “Ooo. You know what I would love?”

The other characters look at her, and James asks, “What?”

“Do you have any ice cream?” Mandy replies. “I could really go for some dulce de leche…”

Time Stands Still will be presented on the McGuire Proscenium Stage at the Guthrie Theater through May 20. For tickets, call 612-377-2224 or go to: guthrietheater.org.

818 S. 2nd St.
Minneapolis, MN 55415
617-377-2224

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    Mordecai Specktor's picture
    Mordecai Specktor

    Mordecai Specktor is the editor of American Jewish World.