Donald Margulies writes a lot about relationships. His work (including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner with Friends) attempts to view love and marriage from a keenly adult perspective. Things aren’t simple; couples become estranged, often because of unforeseen circumstances; love fades.
In Time Stands Still, playing now through March 17th at Lyric Stage, Margulies once again pairs two couples next to each other and sees them through major changes. Sarah (Laura Latreille) is a photojournalist who typically covers wars. Her long-time boyfriend James (Barlow Adamson) is a magazine writer who covers same. Their relationship is unique, to say the least, inasmuch as it requires that they spend much of their time traveling in dangerous, violence-ridden countries. They are often apart. But they believe in their work so passionately, these aspects of their careers never seem to put too much strain on their life together.
Until Sarah nearly dies. She’s blown up and sent into a coma for two weeks. The play begins after her return home.
The other couple is Richard (Jeremiah Kissel), Sarah’s photo editor and Mandy (Erica Spyres), an earnest and much-younger girl whom Richard has begun dated after getting out of a long-term relationship. Sarah and James are dubious as to the authenticity of this new woman in his life. He tells them that he feels alive and revitalized by Mandy.
Time Stands Still follows these characters over the period of a year or so. Sarah and James begin to come apart, the weight of the accident sending them through hurdles of fear and distrust and confusion. Richard and Mandy, meanwhile, flourish.
Margulies, though, can’t seem to quite make it all work. First of all, his dialogue can range from stilted and awkward to sappy and sentimental to downright cringe-worthy.
The actors do their best with these words (and, unbelieveably, make some of them really work), but they can’t sell what mostly remains un-sellable.
There is a scene where James actually says, “There I was, this cocky young kid…” You get the picture. It’s blatant exposition disguised as conversation.
If I ever heard somebody talk like this, I would think I was in a bad play.
But then there are moments of real power. When James and Sarah argue over an affair she had while working, we understand the complex depth of romantic love, how life refuses to allow the dynamic of coupledom to remain uncomplicated.
In this scene, Margulies comes closest to achieving his goal: examining love through a realistic lens.
The final scene was also moving, although much of that can be attributed to the universality of the moment. Had Margulies been able to convince me of these characters’ authenticity, had he managed to show me people instead of writing, the last few lines would have been truly affecting. But I guess time may stand still, but you can’t go back and rewrite the play. This is what we’ve got.
[Time Stands Still. Now through 3.17.12. Lyric Stage Company of Boston. 140 Clarendon Street, Boston. $25.$56. 617.585.5678. lyricstage.com]