Donald Margulies occasionally has clever ideas, but his reputation as one of America's seminal modern playwrights stems from his ability to craft realistic dialogue that subtly snares an audience and wraps it tight for the duration. It's a feat he doesn't do alone, as anyone who has witnessed his landmarks, Dinner With Friends and Sight Unseen, with novice casts knows well. His latest work, however, is in the capable hands of his longtime collaborator, director Daniel Sullivan, and four actors who don't miss a step or utter a false word for two compelling hours. Set entirely in a Brooklyn loft (an attractive, authentic set by John Lee Beatty), the story revolves around Sarah (Anna Gunn), a war photographer who believes her job is to record the action and not to get involved, and her boyfriend of nearly a decade, James (David Harbour), a journalist who also covers conflicts. Their relationship is at a turning point. Sarah has returned from covering the war after being struck by a roadside device, which killed her local go-between. James had left for home several weeks earlier, after suffering mental exhaustion. The couple's close friend is Richard (Robin Thomas), their editor, who recently started dating a much younger, somewhat naive Mandy (Alicia Silverstone). Simple in its construct, Margulies' play impresses by its insightful look at the emotional impact of witnessing human suffering -- from up close and from a safe distance.
It's difficult to choose the most impressive performance, though Silverstone lays a foundation of wisdom beneath Mandy's innocent remarks that is intriguing. The heavy emotional lifting comes courtesy of Gunn, who convincingly portrays a woman suffering deep physical and emotional damage. At one crucial moment, when the injured Sarah is unable to stand, Gunn emits a cry for help that speaks volumes about the character's mental state. Thomas' timing is ideal for Richard, who offers comic relief. Sullivan continues to be one of the steadiest directors in the business. The pace is never rushed, and the conflicts remain restrained until anger explodes and washes over the audience. As with Margulies' other works, smaller theatres will be performing Time Stands Still for years to come. But it's unlikely a stronger production of this play will come along anytime soon.
Presented by and at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Feb. 11–Mar. 15. Tue.–Thu., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat,. 4 and 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m. (310) 208-5454 or the Geffen Playhouse