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.
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. 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
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.
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.
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