Many of the new plays the Tatler has had occasion to review in these pages since beginning this endeavor were, in fact, completely unknown to her before she saw them on stage. The Tatler is well aware that such procedure is a violation of the principles of proper theater criticism: the admonition to “read the play before you see the production” appears in all of the writing books the Tatler herself uses to instruct novices in the correct approach to reviewing and criticism. You may read this as hypocrisy on the part of your devoted blogger, dear Reader, but in her contrarian mode the Tatler is inclined to agree with David Ball, who argues that reading a play before seeing it robs the spectator of much of the fun. And life is just so short, we must take our fun where we can get it, don’t you agree? If not in the theater, at a new play … then where?
Moreover, the Tatler would propose, in her defense, that (particularly in the case of new work) the fact of having read the play beforehand would give her such a fundamentally different experience of the production (because she would be comparing the production at hand to some imagined “ideal” of the play conjured from the solo reading experience) that she would no longer be able to appropriately record and reflect on what she actually saw, at least not in the same way that the less-“prepared” spectators on either side of her might be equipped to do.
You may be forgiven for imagining at this point that these rationalizations are leading up to a confession of my failure to read Donald Margulies’s Time Stands Still before attending the opening night at City Theatre last week. But you would be wrong. What, in fact, prompts these musings on the duty of the critic with regards to reading new plays before viewing them is the fact that I had read this play, just a year ago, in fact, as I was building the syllabus for my course on “Contemporary Plays.” The criteria for the inclusion of any play on that syllabus was: I had to like the play enough to want to read it again (life is short: too short to read something one doesn’t enjoy twice, don’t you agree?) Time Stands Still didn’t make the cut.
I was prepared, then, not to like the play much on stage, either. I was thus both chagrined and delighted to discover, in the first act at least, how wrong my judgment of the play seemed to be. The play opens as war correspondent James Dodd (Andrew May) brings his partner, photojournalist Sarah Goodwin (Angela Reed) back to their loft apartment in New York after she has been severely wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq. She is ill-suited to her new role as invalid; he is both wracked with guilt for not having been with her at her hour of need, and feeling the pull towards a more normal, stable life after her brush with death. The arrival of their best friend Richard (Tim McGeever) and his new, very young girlfriend Robin (Mandy Bloom) sets in motion what conflict the play contains, namely, the tension between Sarah’s drive to do the work that gives meaning to her life, and Richard, Robin, and eventually James’s reappraisal of the value of family and domestic comforts.
Director Tracy Brigden has found the humor and wit in Margulies’s dialogue that escaped me on my reading of the play. The encounter in the first act between the cosmopolitan, prickly Sarah and the provincial, bubbly Robin is a hoot, and while we laugh along with Sarah and James at what seems to be a pathetic mid-life crisis relationship on Richard’s part, we also get a rare glimpse into what makes such relationships work when they do: the fact that such men have something important to offer to young women, too.
The production is one of the best I’ve seen at City. The uniformly excellent cast gives compelling performances; the scene design (Tony Ferrieri) beautifully replicates an upscale NY loft; and the costumes, light, and sound (Robert C.T. Steele, Ann G. Wrightson, and Joe Pino) pull us squarely into the world of the play.
But despite City’s strong production, in the end my initial reading of the play was confirmed on seeing it, as the comic promise of Act I gradually dissolves into rather tired melodrama in Act II. It’s a movie I’ve seen before (maybe with the genders reversed): James wants Sarah to stay with him and start a family; but she is addicted to her work, and walks away from their relationship (of eight years!) to return to war zones to fulfill what she feels is her responsibility, as artist and journalist, to document what we would otherwise never see. Twenty years ago this Ayn Randian vision of the noble, singleminded, hardhearted, socially visionary but isolated artist might have appealed to me. But I’ve changed, and the play would be more interesting, and more compelling, if Sarah did too.