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If you snap a photo of a mangled person instead of trying to save his life, are you complicit in his death? Does traveling the globe to report atrocities, the kind which first-worlders in large part choose to remain oblivious of, ultimately help anyone? The questions Donald Margulies asks in his three-year-old homefront drama Time Stands Still aren’t new, but he asks them honestly and well. When the relationship between the news-gathering couple at its center begins to fray, you feel the queasy churn of lives grinding away from one another like tectonic plates. And if perchance you allow yourself afterward to bask in the self-congratulatory glow of having passed up an evening of frivolous amusement to instead bear sober witness to something important and nourishing, Margulies has you pegged: He mocks his audience (and himself) in a scene wherein Greg, his shellshocked foreign correspondent, bemoans the tedious choir-preaching of the war-monologues show he and his photojournalist girlfriend Sarah have just taken in at the theater.
We meet Sarah and James (Holly Twyford and Greg McFadden) as they struggle into their Brooklyn walk-up having just returned from tours of the Middle East. An IED detonation has left her with two broken limbs and a lattice of scars traversing her face and neck. He’s still under psychiatric care following an earlier violent episode that interrupted his ability to sleep or work. This new, shared period of convalescence is the first time their eight-year relationship, forged in the market-bombed wild, has had to survive in captivity. Whether an emotional contract made under fire can sustain itself in peacetime is the question Margulies is going to answer in two hours’ traffic of our stage. He gives the 40-ish James and Sarah—“the Sid and Nancy of journalism,” their 50-something editor pal Richard calls them—a housebroken analogue in Richard and Mandy, his chirpy, decades-younger girlfriend. In these roles, Dan Illian and Laura C. Harris perfectly channel paunchy entitlement and doe-eyed, untested optimism (respectively), though Margulies gives Mandy more to do as the evening progresses.
But for the most part, Time Stands Still is pretty much the James and Sarah show. In her flinty role, Twyford understandably hates the dependency on her partner enforced by her casts and crutches. McFadden’s line readings take on a whiny quality of recitation at times, but this seems a valid choice for his character when describing events he’s (presumably) discussed with a therapist already. In any case, we buy that his devotion to Sarah outweighs any transgression she could confess.
While he’s home on the couch, James starts work on a book about the political subtext of horror films. To Sarah, it’s unforgivably lightweight stuff. The unpredictable speed and direction in which this crack expands has a wedding ring of truth about it, and the spiky drama of a relationship outgrown holds our attention even when rhetorical hand-wringing over journalistic ethics grates. Near the evening’s end, the words Twyford calls after McFadden, as he wrangles his bike down the stairs of her apartment, echo like a bomb blast: “Be careful.”