Thursday, February 2, 2012

BY INVITATION ONLY – 'Time Stands Still' at Steppenwolf Theatre

If you intend to write a play set against a current war, expect some heightened scrutiny at your doorstep. Your audiences, in ways ranging from passing concern to personal ruin, are being affected by the war, wherever it is. You can bet on it. American involvement in the Iraq War has officially ended, but it is still a relevant stain on our cultural consciousness. In his Time Stands Still, Donald Margulies has crafted a wartime play in which the national conflict matters very little to its plot and character development. What Margulies perhaps intends here is to use the war as a magnifying glass on one single relationship, and in that effort, he succeeds. But these characters would act in precisely the same way they do here regardless of whether there is a war going on or not.

Of course, Steppenwolf jumps on the war train with gung-ho enthusiasm, and it becomes the first of many miscommunications. At Steppenwolf Theatre, Donald Margulies' Time Stands Still is an uneven experience that is constantly at odds with the words it expatiates. Initially engrossing, the play eventually grows tiresome because of saturated obviousness and gradual loss of intrigue.

Margulies’ play depicts the struggles of two wartime journalists and lovers, Sarah and James. Although they have been together for eight years, they have never felt inclined to marry. But when Sarah returns from Iraq with serious injuries having been caught in a roadside bomb explosion, their relationship becomes seen through a different lens… by James anyway. He wants a stronger (perhaps legal) commitment, while girlfriend Sarah remains unsure of her spiritual destination. The incursion of the couple’s longtime friend Richard and his shiny new girlfriend only furthers James’s nagging need for something deeper.

Director Austin Pendleton's production firm handedly decides what this something deeper is, pitting domestic bliss against wanton singlehood. I use such strong language because this Time Stands Still does not extol the virtues of these two divergent life paths, married and single, but rather puts one on a pedestal and banishes the other to the time-out corner. Time Stands Still so vigorously shoves the joys and merits of traditional coupledom in your face, that you’d wonder if it is, in fact, actually some lost book of the New Testament. Sarah's unwillingness to commit to her boyfriend of eight years plays as cruel, torturous, and sad, rather than a free expression of her own individuality. The final scene of the play enlightened me to what a late nineteenth century audience would have thought of Nora Helmer. That bitch.

Donald Margulies' writing hits you over the head with blunt symbolism, and consistent with that device, Sarah comes to represent the 'free spirit' - that person you gawk at and pity for not wanting something more. She finds little satisfaction in her own relationship, and, to an extent, she is even numb to the grotesque violence of the war that she so regularly witnesses. Perhaps the war has also numbed her to relationship stability, but I think she would have the same flakey personality whether this play took place against the backdrop of a war or an extremely serious bake sale.

Sarah is at the center of this play, and her storyline ends in the most satisfying way for her. But the production forces a wash of domestic tragedy on the final moment, ending with an amplified “BOOM” and a blackout. It is a weird choice that judges the character, arms crossed with a frowny face. Appropriately the acting follows suit.

Sally Murphy's portrayal of Sarah, a field photographer, is dominated by the actor's peculiar vocal patterns and facial ticks, indicating some sort of generic brand of posttraumatic stress disorder. But the text itself has no mention of posttraumatic stress, and it never enters the onstage conversation. Her bold traits and unpredictable intonations, while surely intriguing, have an undesirable side effect; they stamp Sarah as a crotchety, bitter woman whose desires, wants, and needs are constantly overshadowed by her vindictiveness. Murphy's performance is multifaceted and magnetic, but it skews the play into something it is not. Nearly everything Sarah does and says is responded to with audience disdain from beginning to end.

I’m not typically one to cite my age when reviewing a play, but being twenty-one, I felt uncomfortably distanced from much of Time Stands Still. I can’t help but think that the root of many of my problems with the play is simply being young. While biological age is not an outright target, any kind of immaturity is rigorously chastised. Everyone seemed to be silently screaming at Sarah to grow up and conform to their narrow view of what it is to be an adult – a functioning person. And the production’s choices in acting and design confidently concur with that view. I could overlook the cold shoulder treatment in the first act, which I appreciated as a story, but the message, though thought provoking, was a major turn-off.

There is a twenty-five year old character, Mandy Bloom, whose name describes the author's opinion of her with Jacobean obviousness. She is the relatively new, young girlfriend of the fifty-five year old Richard, and on paper, she is the token lovable ditz. Of course, the lovable ditz is a frequent real-life occurrence, but Margulies has written a deeply symbolic play, so Mandy ends up enveloping all youth. Great…

Triumphing over the textual and production barriers, Kristina Valada-Viars gives an extremely touching performance as Mandy, and the most intelligent performance of the troupe. Rather than being victimized by the onslaught of holier-than-thou verbal attacks from all directions, she fends them off with stoic pleasantness and grace. Despite Valada-Viars lovely turn, the production continues to roll its eyes at the frivolity of the young, and over the course of the two hours, Valada-Viars’ Mandy proves the only true adult onstage.

As Mandy’s boyfriend and the couple’s longtime friend Richard, Francis Guinan performs with his recognizable charm, perhaps occasionally taking advantage of his aging exterior. Randall Newsome plays James, Sarah’s beau, with amiability and playfulness, but allows Sarah to take the lead a little too often. James often appears small and frail, again perpetuating the audience’s Sarah-as-Gargamel mentality.

Walt Spanger, whose recent Penelope scenic design was hot and zesty, has sculpted a worn-in, yet stylish apartment befitting a couple of middle-aged journalists. A subtle, but effective touch is a single ceiling support beam that forcefully juts out over the audiences’ heads. The play itself has a somewhat exclusive energy, and that one little beam breaks through the fourth-wall cliquiness. Josh Schmidt’s sound design is cool, metallic and swooshy, but with every transition, it suggests the ever-present war, muddling the real story.

The first act of the play is a nail biter. The group’s interaction is awkwardly contentious, the lead couple's relationship is delightfully confusing, and there is an emotional heaviness to the action that is wondrously cathartic. All of the actors' best performances are given in the first act, and it could exist quite harmoniously alone. The first act has all the makings of a phenomenal Steppenwolf production, but it is hindered exponentially by its weak second act and subsequently poor resolution. The act is ruled by the predictable crumbling of the relationship, and the scenes and dialogue become singsong repetition.

My brain wandered more than once during the countless kitchen table talks, while the play lost focus and the actors took undeserved pregnant pauses in a strenuous attempt to resemble life. Time Stands Still spurs some interesting discussion and partly engrosses, and I was taken with much of it. But with such a narrow view on what constitutes adult decision-making (and adults for that matter), by the end, the play had transformed into a party I was not invited to.-Johnny Oleksinski

'Time Stands Still' runs at Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theatre through May 13.