Humans love to record their lives. They used to do it in art, but then technology came along, bearing methods that can notate existence much more quickly and accurately than artists ever could. But our electronic machinery simply records phenomena, whereas, back when the impulse to record life had to be poured into art, the art form’s demands inevitably made the result into something different. With our electronic devices, all too often, the effort to touch up what’s been recorded results in falsification rather than artistic enhancement.
A news photographer and a reporter get married. This sentence, which sounds like the opening line of a joke, is the central premise of Donald Margulies’s new play, Time Stands Still (MTC/Friedman). The joke is a bitter one, as the two main characters duly discover, tied at its core to our modern mania for recording everything on the instant. Sarah (Laura Linney), a superb photojournalist, has a compulsive need to be at the exotic trouble spot at the exact moment when it goes up in flames, ready to snap the defining picture. Jamie (Brian d’Arcy James), a solid, reputable newsman, has had the mania burned out of him. They’ve wandered together through eight grueling years of the world’s firestorms, climaxing in Iraq. That Jamie was back in the States, so not present when a car bomb went off, severely injuring Sarah and killing their “fixer,” or local interpreter-guide, doesn’t help him rekindle the roving reporter’s impulse while nursing Sarah back to health.
She, too, it turns out, has doubts about the value of the risks they run and their underlying motives. But not the same doubts as his. Subtly, cannily, Margulies anchors Sarah and Jamie’s burgeoning conflict over their work in the realities of today’s instant-flash, hot-spot journalism; at the same time, he lets us glimpse it, teasingly, as a metaphor for other contemporary modes of creativity, including his own. As Sarah recovers, and Jamie begins evolving the text for a lavish coffee-table book enshrining her Iraq photographs (even though both see the irony of the concept), their conflict deepens as well as widens. They not only have differing doubts about the work they’ve been doing, and differing thoughts on what comes next, but, in addition, a personal conflict, over their behavior in Iraq, raises questions as acrimonious as they are resonant.
Margulies flanks Jamie and Sarah, who are similar in age and interests, with a May-December couple whose changing relationship functions as a commentary on theirs while helping us fix their position in the America from which they keep flying off to cover new battle zones. Richard (Eric Bogosian), a onetime lover of Sarah’s and the photo editor of the large news magazine they work for, has become enraptured with Mandy (Alicia Silverstone), half his age and no more interested in world events or the art of photography than your average smart shopper. The personal events that ensue—elegantly and compassionately balanced against the more somber main story—show her to be a very smart shopper indeed.
Daniel Sullivan, a director of utmost reliability for plays like this, in which both external details and fluctuating emotions need to be solidly believable at every moment, has given Time Stands Still one of his maximally reliable productions. Bogosian’s craggy, half-abashed Richard is the most convincing work I’ve seen him do outside his own texts; Silverstone’s dumb-like-a-fox routine matches it with perfect, heartfelt smoothness. As for Linney and d’Arcy James, it’s just such a pleasure to watch artists this skilled dig into work they’re this good at; the sense of completeness they bring makes a good play into a great event.
As You Like It, which also deals with lovers trying to keep the flame of passion alive in a dark political time, is probably a greater play than Time Stands Still, but it’s 400 years old, which makes its immediacy hard to rouse. Sam Mendes’s new production, for BAM’s Bridge Project, tries many and varied tactics for rousing that immediacy, including modernish dress, a slow pace that gives a drifty, Chekhovian atmosphere, and even a hint of torture to spice up the usurping Duke’s dictatorial ways. Sometimes it works; just as often, it doesn’t. Mendes’s besetting sin as a director is that he seems to fuss over scenes rather than think them through. The exiled Duke’s men set up folding tables that turn the savage Forest of Arden into a cozy picnic ground. Orlando (Christian Camargo) interrupts them while coming down the house right aisle, and then dashes off upstage, in the exact opposite direction, to fetch the ailing old man he’s left behind.
Mendes has, too, the condition known as Famous Passageitis—the delusion that Shakespeare wrote in a language meant to be quoted reverentially, rather than understood. Every time Jacques (Stephen Dillane) or Touchstone (Thomas Sadoski) comes on in this production, you know that sanity and the life of the scene are both about to stop dead while something all too familiar gets recited.
To be fair, Mendes undoubtedly also feels the play’s living charm; otherwise he would not have cast a Rosalind as adorable as Juliet Rylance. If Camargo, who’s married to her in offstage life, often seems to stand dumbstruck at her beauty and bubbling vivacity, I for one don’t blame him in the least. Many of the others do strong, intelligent work—besides Dillane and Sadoski, Aaron Krohn’s Silvius and Richard Hansell’s Amiens deserve praise—but this As You Like It is, like Orlando’s heart, all “for Rosalind.”
“Never fall in love during a total eclipse,” Larry Gelbart once wisecracked. Sam Shepard’s new Ages of the Moon (Atlantic Theater) demonstrates that falling out of love during a lunar eclipse can be dangerous, too, especially if the friend whose shoulder you’ve picked to cry on is as crustily argumentative as yourself. A short (80 minutes), ruminative mood piece like other recent Shepard works, Ages lacks forward motion; it offers instead the serene circularity of a staged poem. Under Jimmy Fay’s direction, Stephen Rea and Sean McGinley play it skillfully.