Theater Review: “Time Stands Still” — A Too Distant Echo of the War in Iraq

When young photographers went up to the famous war photographer Robert Capa and asked him what they could do to make their pictures more gripping, he said, “Go closer!”

Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies. Directed by Scott Edmiston. At the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA,through March 17.

By Peter-Adrian Cohen

Laura Latreille in TIME STANDS STILL at the Lyric Stage. Photo: Mark S. Howard

I wish I could say otherwise, but this production of Time Stands Still was a disappointment.

Believe me, I attended it with high expectations. After all, the play was written by one of this country’s most prolific and successful playwrights, Donald Margulies. I was looking forward to a story crafted by an expert story-teller—with surprising twists, sparkling dialogue that would take me to a place I had never been.

And then 10 minutes went by, 15, 20, and nothing worth recounting happened. For the first 20 minutes, there wasn’t a single line that drew me in.

I should have known what I was in for when I sat down in the theater: The stage represented a contemporary loft in Brooklyn, reproduced in a so much detail as to leave nothing to the imagination. Realism! This would be a staging that reproduced reality without the vital ingredient of imagination. The set said “TV”; it said sitcom. But why go to the theater when I can see this sort of thing all day long on TV? A set is a play’s most potent advertisement. This set advertised “We’re in a very bland space—no personality, no energy.” I mean there are lofts and there are lofts; there is the crazy, jumbled, artist’s loft that thrills (or angers) with its disregard for convention; and there is the multi-million-dollar, Trump-style loft, which someone once described as “late to middle Holiday Inn”; at least these places have style—even if, as in the case of Trump, the style is iconically bad. But THIS loft—the one on stage—simply said “Predictable.”

To make things worse, this loft is supposed to be the place where two very creative people live: James “Jamie” Dodd, war reporter, and Sarah Goodwin, war photographer. From what I know, creative people surround themselves with objects of their obsession: I expected enlarged prints, raw and disturbing. Instead there were things like an antique-ish globe of the world and a lot of uninteresting clutter.

I describe this in detail because it advertised what the evening would be like. And when Jamie and Sarah made their entrance, I knew my hunch was correct. Do not misunderstand me: The four actors in this production give their best—they are hardworking artists giving you your money’s worth. But the way they are cast and directed points to a deeper malaise.

To me the biggest disappointment is the play itself. It had none of the dazzle, the wit, the searing emotion I expected from a writer like Margulies. Why didn’t anybody see that? At the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, which had commissioned the play? At the other big name theaters that subsequently picked up the play?

Time Stands Still is never really in focus, never really has a theme.

The Lyric Stage presents it as a play about two war reporters adjusting to home after they come back from Iraq. And there are a few scenes that deal with just that. But those scenes are few and far in between; the rest is about the trivia of everyday life: marriage, age difference, child-rearing.

Barlow Adamson, Erica Spyres, Jeremiah Kissel, and Laura Latreille in TIME STANDS STILL. Photo: Mark S. Howard

To me the most problematic scenes were precisely those that should have been at the heart of the play: war reporting. The play was written in 2009, a time by which reporters had become embedded in combat units. At home, in the US, we were seeing combat the way we had never seen it before: live and direct. We had begun to understand the frightening grammar of combat; what it is really—I mean REALLY—like. And then you get this play that, at its most dramatic moment—the wounding of Sarah by an IED—merely repeats what we have seen again and again, without the immediacy of TV. At that moment, time stands still indeed, and war is no more than a very distant echo, written from the safety of Brooklyn, NY. And worse, perhaps, the play ignores the fact that many members of the (mostly older) audience are highly educated about war; they surely have read the great books on war of their generation: Norman Mailer’s The Naked and The Dead; Joe Heller’s Catch-22; Michael Herr’s Dispatches; or seen the National Geographic film about firebase Restrepo—to name just a few. In a way, this staging of Time Stands Still feels as if the actors were still using stage-blood (figuratively speaking)—in a time when, to our horror, we are constantly seeing the real thing.

Why did Spiro Veloudos, artistic director of the Lyric Stage not notice any of this? Why did he chose this play? Why did the play’s director, Scott Edmiston, not note it either and, consequently, transform the play into something more dramatic and, above all, more theatrical? In fact the only moments of theatricality come, once towards the end of the first act and once during the second, when the stage is dark and a spooky, silvery, smoky light flows through the windows and turns the loft into a barren, threatening, warlike place.

When young photographers went up to the famous war photographer Robert Capa and asked him what they could do to make their pictures more gripping, he said, “Go closer!”

I wish the creative team of Time Stands Still, the many hands through which the play passed, had done just that.


  1. First of all, I want to thank Arts Fuse for asking us to respond to Peter-Adrian Cohen’s review of Time Stands Still. It is a rare opportunity to be able to engage in a constructive dialogue between critic and theatre. I hope this is the beginning of a new trend.

    I suppose this response could be perceived as a mite awkward as it is clear Mr. Cohen did not like the play, which is too bad, but surely his right. It seems he had certain expectations that were not met. I cannot and will not surmise the totality of what those might have been. All I can offer are a few alternative thoughts based on what I know about the playwright, the production, and what resonates for me about Time Stands Still.

    Donald Margulies is not a playwright I associate with “surprising twists,” “dazzle,” or “wit.” He is, in his own words, interested in the conversations that occupy his world. “I’ve always been excited by seeing real life portrayed in art,” he said in Steppenwolf’s program note for the play. As one of Mr. Margulies’ favorite writers, Anton Chekhov, said, “in real life, people don’t spend every moment shooting one another, hanging themselves, or making declarations of love. They do not spend all their time saying clever things. They are more occupied with eating, drinking, flirting, and saying stupidities, and these are the things which ought to be shown on stage. . . . People eat their dinner, just eat their dinner, and all the time their happiness is taking form, or their lives are being destroyed.” What I find compelling about Time Stands Still are these “dinner” moments, when a seemingly innocuous request for coffee belies the complicated emotional depth of the relationships between characters.

    Realism isn’t for everyone, and I think Mr. Cohen asks a valid question. Is realism the best aesthetic choice for live theatre when film and TV are so well-suited to the style? I think we know what both Mr. Cohen and Mr. Margulies would say on the subject, but I appreciate the questions. For my part, I think artists of any sort should use the form that best serves their intent. Just because a play is realistically portrayed doesn’t mean it can’t take advantage of the unique aspects of the medium.

    Margulies often writes about the roles and responsibilities of the artist (as in Collected Stories) and what happens when a couple doesn’t want the same things any more (as in Dinner with Friends). Both of these themes factor heavily in Time Stands Still, as does the disconnect Mr. Margulies felt between his posh East Coast life and the news about Iraq he heard on his clock radio. Sarah willingly puts herself in physically and emotionally traumatic situations because she thinks her work makes a difference – and what else can she do? As she says to James, “How can you live with yourself, knowing what goes on out there?” To which James responds, “Because I know what goes on…” It is this tension that, to me, is the hallmark of the play and this production. Sarah’s injury happens off-stage, well before the play even starts, so I don’t think of it as the most dramatic moment in the play. The dramatic conflict hinges around this couple’s decision to go back to the dangerous front or live comfortably at home – not exciting like explosions, but subtler, truer, and much more suited for a live theatrical event.

    And yet, this struggle was not where Margulies started — it was the setting that first inspired the story: the loft. In our production, the design team was interested in crafting a layover location. Its inhabitants, we learn over the course of the play, haven’t been home for months –- and usually aren’t. The most important objects for Sarah are her cameras, not her home. I don’t know that I would characterize all artists’ homes in the same way Mr. Cohen has. As for most people, I think the form is dictated by the function. In this world, the loft is place that holds Sarah and James’ change of clothes, and occasional travel keepsake. Their mutual obsessions are out in the world, not hung on their walls.

    Finally, I would wager that Time Stands Still will be one of the more produced plays this year across the nation. The popularity of the play doesn’t necessitate all critics’ approval, but I find from reading Mr. Cohen’s review, I don’t know very much about what he saw. I would have found his argument much more compelling if he investigated what the play and production were attempting, and if either were successful on those terms. You don’t have to like Hamlet, for example, but if you go in expecting cats on roller skates, you will be disappointed.

  2. Dr. Beatrice St. Laurent on February 29, 2012 at 4:39 pm

    As a scholar of the Middle East working in East Jerusalem for the last 22 years, I have had the opportunity to meet the photographers and journalists that ply their trade in the tumultuous world of the Middle East. I could not disagree more with your assessment of the Lyric’s current production of Marguiles’ TIME STAND STILL directed by Scott Edmiston. The play addressed accurately the lifestyle (the bare loft that was basically not lived in and the inability to settle for a ‘normal’ existence. My journalist ‘friends’ and colleagues from the early 1990’s encountered at the American Colony (mentioned in the play) represent the epitome of that lifestyle.

    I left the Lyric the night that I saw the production reflecting on a journalist friend from that time period–now deceased by suicide. In fact, Laura Latreille’s (a colleague at Bridgewater State University) ‘Sarah’ is for me Marie Colvin, the recently deceased journalist in Homs, Syria. I knew Marie in the early nineties context of the American Colony in Jerusalem, heard of her death almost immediately after seeing the production and was deeply saddened by her passing.

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