Sarah (Sara Gaston) and Mandy (Lisa Villegas)

Time Stands Still
Thru April 19
$20–36
Main Street Theater
2540 Times Blvd
713-524-6706
mainstreettheater.com 

The second act of Time Stands Still begins with the characters discussing a recent performance in New York intended to draw attention to the plight of Iraqi civilians. The parts are filled by actual Iraqi refugees, who take turns telling their real-life horror stories to the audience. A powerful indictment of the 2003 American invasion? An opportunity for victims to make their voices heard, to shake the audience out of its complacency? 

Just the opposite, argues James (Seán Patrick Judge), a magazine journalist who has covered the Iraq War. James, who knows some of the Iraqis participating in the performance, considers the whole thing a minstrel show, a degrading spectacle of abasement in which the Iraqis, dressed in dishdashas and Hijabs, are forced to ritually humiliate themselves on stage to the tune of pseudo-Persian music. Moreover, since the audience consisted mostly of the New York intelligentsia and their fellow travelers, the performance’s organizers were preaching to the choir. “That play was about one thing—assuaging liberal guilt,” he declares. 

Sarah (Sara Gaston) and Jamie (Seán Patrick Judge)

What are we to make of this meta-theatrical moment, which comes in the middle of a play about the personal repercussions of the Iraq War for four New Yorkers, one that even features Persian-style music during some scene changes? The play begins with James helping his longtime photojournalist girlfriend Sarah (Sara Gaston) into their shabby-chic Brooklyn apartment. Sarah wears a thigh-high cast on her leg, walks on crutches, and has deep red scratches across her face. We learn that she’s just arrived back in America after being wounded in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq. (The play’s title refers to Sarah’s description of what it’s like to take photographs in a war zone.)

A few days after their return, the couple receives a visit from the similarly middle-aged Richard (Jack Young), Sarah’s photo editor at a New Yorker–type magazine, along with his new 20-something girlfriend Mandy (Lisa Villegas). The quartet of characters dance awkwardly around a number of painful subjects: Sarah’s wounds, and her desire to return to Iraq once they’ve healed; the death of her Iraqi fixer, with whom she was close and who was sitting next to her in the car when the bomb exploded; James’s previous psychological breakdown in Iraq, which forced him to come home early, leaving Sarah alone during the bombing; and the truth, universally acknowledged (at least by James and Sarah), that a single man in possession of a magazine editorship should not be in want of an event organizer straight out of college.

The conflicts established by this first confab continue to percolate for the remainder of the play, along with an ongoing contretemps over the moral status and practical efficacy of combat journalism. Although well-drawn by playwright Donald Margulies, best known for his Pulitzer Prize–winning play Dinner With Friends, Time Stands Still’s characters occasionally feel a bit schematic, their positions a little too neatly delineated. It will surprise no one that the magazine editor is nebbish, the event organizer bubble-headed, or the pair of journalists gimlet-eyed. At times, their arguments drift into debating-society territory, threatening to reduce the characters to talking heads in a Crossfire episode. 

Sarah (Sara Gaston), Jamie (Seán Patrick Judge), and Richard (Jack Young)

In the end, however, Margulies is able to successfully traverse the border between character-driven and issue-driven drama without coming across as politically unengaged on the one hand or preachy on the other. He’s given a big assist by Main Street’s accomplished production, featuring a well-detailed set design by Jodi Bobrovsky, confident directing by Steve Garfinkel, and a strong cast, especially Gaston, who was also excellent in Main Street’s The Real Thing last fall.

As I left the theater, I was still thinking about James’s criticism of the Iraqi refugee performance. It was canny of Margulies to include the scene as a way to innoculate his own play against similar criticism—yes, I’m aware of the problem, he seems to be saying—but does Time Stands Still manage to break through the audience’s apathy or bien-pensant liberalism? Maybe, maybe not. The difference between it and the refugee minstrel show is that Margulies has written a play, not a polemic—a play that will survive and find an audience well after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are just bitter, tragic memories. 

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