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Laurie Metcalf, Josh Hamilton, Marin Ireland in Sam Shepard's "A Lie of the Mind," directed by Ethan Hawke, The New Group, 2010. Photo: Monique Carboni

Lies of the Drama
By Neil Blackadder

Time Stands Still
By Donald Margulies
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th St.
Box office: 212-399-3050

A Lie of the Mind
By Sam Shepard
The Acorn Theatre
410 W. 42th St.
Box office: 212-279-4200

 

I recently saw two New York productions back to back that capture for me a key distinction between theater that is easily digestible yet uninspiring and theater that is puzzling yet resonant. The Broadway production of Donald Margulies' new play Time Stands Still was smoothly executed but left me feeling little more than indifference. Sam Shepard's 1985 play A Lie of the Mind, revived Off-Broadway by the New Group, struck me as messy, elusive, but captivating.

The script of Time Stands Still is artfully put together. The four characters are quite distinct, which gives the actors plenty of scope for depicting them in all their seriousness and humor. Through the main couple's work overseas as photographer and writer, Margulies' play deals with issues that go beyond everyday life in America. At intermission, I felt engaged. I was interested in Sarah, a photographer played by Laura Linney who can't stop doing what she does even though it has nearly got her killed once and might well do so next time. I figured Margulies was going to have something else momentous happen to her. I was also intrigued to find out what he would do with the play's younger woman, Mandy, an apparent ditz who unhesitatingly reveals her naivety but whom--as performed by Alicia Silverstone--it was hard not to like for that very straightforwardness.

Laura Linney, Brian d'Arcy James and Eric Bogosian in Donald Margulies' "Time Stands Still," dir. by Daniel Sullivan, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 2010. Photo: Joan Marcus.And what did happen? The younger woman simply embraced motherhood, and Sarah resumed her work, at the cost of her long-term relationship with the writer, who had his fill of chasing after violence overseas. Obviously, with a play portraying journalists who go to places like Iraq, there's a danger of preaching-to-the-choir liberalism. Who wouldn't feel some admiration for those who risk life and limb to inform us about the horrors taking place elsewhere? Margulies even has Jamie, the writer, loudly bemoan the kind of theater that lets the well-meaning well-to-do feel good about themselves because they're listening to accounts of atrocities. In the end, though, I felt that his critique applied pretty well to Time Stands Still. The resolution packed no punch. The four characters either stayed where they'd been or moved in a slightly different direction, and in no case was that surprising or affecting.

As I watched Time Stands Still, I felt that I quickly recognized the characters, knew who they were, and hoped that they would surprise me; they didn't. The following evening, at A Lie of the Mind, I didn't feel I knew where any of the characters' journeys were going to take them. That applied not only to Beth and Jake, both presented in different ways as mentally impaired, but also to the more settled, older characters, their parents. I love that feeling of not being able to predict where a play's story is going, though of course that needs to go along with our caring about what happens to the people. Alicia Silverstone and Eric Bogosian in Donald Margulies' "Time Stands Still," dir. by Daniel Sullivan, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 2010. Photo: Joan Marcus.With Margulies, I did care about what happened to Sarah and Mandy, but not that much, and I felt utterly indifferent to the men. Watching A Lie of the Mind, I found myself in the odd, troubling, interesting position of caring not only about a woman who had just been badly beaten by her husband but also about the messed-up man who did the beating. In Shepard, all the people seemed real and vulnerable and scared, in a way stupid, yet somehow understandably so. At times Karen Young's performance as Jake's mother Lorraine pushed so hard in the direction of comedy that it didn't ring true, but in the end even that choice worked for me as a strange, flawed wackiness. I also liked how Lorraine contrasted with Beth's mother, Meg, played so touchingly by Laurie Metcalf. We are set up to think of her as crazy early on, but later she gets some of the sanest lines in the play.

With Margulies' play, I kept not believing the conversations taking place among the characters. I'd have accepted it more if only the sharp-tongued Sarah had kept coming out with clever one-liners, but instead all of them did. I hate that feeling of the playwright having thrown up a ball for the actor to obligingly bat out into the audience so that the spectators can knowingly laugh. And it was all so even -- all the characters got to say their piece, they didn't talk over each other, the dramatic action rose and fell obediently. And of course there were Big Scenes, confrontations -- almost all of which left me thinking "How come they never said this to each other before now?!"

In Act II, Sarah told Jamie about a "flashback" she just had, about how a woman prisoner yelling at her reminded her of another woman yelling at her earlier in a war-zone. Yet the whole device seemed to exist just to provide the playwright with material; it didn't actually make anything happen to or with the character. In other instances too, Margulies set up potentially engaging plot points, only to develop them in an unconvincing and unresounding way. In an early scene, Jamie told Sarah about an article he was working on about horror movies, and she brilliantly dismantled the half-baked argument he planned to make. But by part way through Act II, Jamie had committed himself fully to his horror-movie research, and basically ceased to exist as a rounded, engaging character. In Shepard, where I experienced the characters as driven by obsessions and misled by blindnesses, I might have found Jamie's giving himself up to this passion poignant and fascinating. But because Margulies had situated Jamie in a world of well-spoken individuals who can articulate their motivation, it struck me instead as weak character development.

Karen Young and Maggie Siff in Sam Shepard's "A Lie of the Mind," dir. by Ethan Hawke, The New Group, 2010. Photo: Monique Carboni.Time Stands Still is a single-set, small-cast play that will probably get produced by many regional theaters in coming seasons, with slightly different designs that nevertheless won't depart much from the look of this premiere production. I'm prepared to believe that lofts in Williamsburg look just like this setting, but I would have loved it to do more than just sit there looking authentic. How refreshing it was to watch Ethan Hawke's production of A Lie of the Mind unfold and aspire to visual goals loftier than those of a sitcom set. Lie's primary design motif--a back wall covered in stuff--was perfect, especially since it wasn't over-employed. Mostly it too just sat there, yet it resonated. The production also had live music that was played on odd objects such as a chair and a beer bottle with metal strings attached, and there was country-ish (but not in the least sentimental-sounding) singing during several transitions. All this worked beautifully because it didn't merely illustrate; it complemented the action without intruding upon it.

The experience of watching Margulies' play did have one thing in common with that of watching Shepard's: it reminded me of how much more psychologically interesting female characters tend to be. The two men in Time Stands Still end up seeming like lightweights. One, Jamie, gives up on adventure and ambition (and in fact never had all that much drive to begin with), and just fizzles out -- like the play! The other (ably performed by Eric Bogosian, but still) is really just put in place at the top of the show and stays where he's been put -- a function more than a character. Sarah, on the other hand, did interest me, as did event-planner-turned-mom Mandy. But in A Lie of the Mind, Shepard didn't just make his female characters more compelling than the men; he acutely suggested some general truths about men and women. He showed that men are much more likely to get fixated on a particular notion, like emulating their fathers, or a particular activity, like hunting. The women, meanwhile, wanted connection with other human beings, and kept striving for it even after it was proven futile. The spectacle of that vain pursuit can be extremely poignant. Such was the case not only with poor Beth, who didn't really understand why she shouldn't just get married to her husband's brother, who was much nicer to her, but also with the mothers, with their mixture of resilience and resignation. When Beth's father kissed Meg after she helped him fold up the American flag, she remarked that he hadn't done that in 20 years. That line grew naturally, believably, out of the relationship we had been presented with. Margulies also depicted a relationship between a man and a woman stretching back over many troubled years, yet nothing that happened between Sarah and Jamie struck a chord like that.

Laurie Metcalf, Keith Carradine in Sam Shepard's "A Lie of the Mind," dir. by Ethan Hawke, The New Group, 2010. Photo: Monique Carboni.At one point in the second act of Time Stands Still, Jamie put his bicycle helmet back on and, right before exiting, knocked the top of the helmet, for no clear reason. My companion remarked that the play and production needed more of that sort of unaccountable yet meaningful action. For me, one problem with the skillful kind of playwriting Margulies practices is precisely that it is so skillful--everything fits into place. His is a representation of the world in which everything is integrated into the whole, whereas Shepard's is one in which loose ends are allowed, even encouraged, to remain.

Related to that is the issue of what images are created on stage. Margulies' play signally failed to make this a priority -- until, maybe, sort of, the (uninspired) final moment when Sarah points her camera out at the house. Shepard offered a wealth of evocative images, such as Jake in boxer shorts and pilot's jacket, with the American flag around his shoulders, or, later, that flag wrapped around a gun-barrel. In the latter part of Shepard's play, two characters repeatedly tussle over a blanket that has been subtly invested with multiple meanings: it's a source of warmth that one sick character desperately needs, an emblem of the other's possession of this domestic space, etc. In Time Stands Still, Sarah and Jamie's laptops were just laptops. I'll remember Baylor and Jake's tug-of-war with an orange and black blanket for a long time, how it looked on stage, the thoughts and associations it prompted. I won't remember Sarah and Jamie's laptops the day after tomorrow.

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