Monday, March 19, 2012

“Time Stands Still”: A Bread and Butter Production at Ensemble

     Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still directed by Michael Evan Haney at Ensemble fits very well into the realistic, bourgeois comedy-drama slot that usually occurs at that theatre each spring.  I don’t intend that observation disparagingly because the intelligent, witty play that deals with timely issues in a realistic mode is probably one of the best ways to ensure an adult, middle class audience.  Margulies is the latest in a grand America tradition of the liberal Jewish award-winning commercial playwright that started with Lillian Hellman and continued with Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, Arthur Laurents (the most under-rated and under-produced of the group), Neil Simon, and Larry Kramer.   What they lack in formal adventurousness, they make up for in a strong, clear plotline, and complex, smart characters.  And, most importantly, while their works are very much of a specific period and milieu, their best ones rarely feel dated.  I think this is the fourth Margulies play that Ensemble has produced.

Dexter with Jen Johansen on the Set of Time Stands Still
     Time Stands Still presents Sarah Goodwin (a plain sounding name that is a strong metaphor), a photojournalist severely injured in an Iraqi roadside bombing, returning stateside. She needs to recover physically whereas her
partner James Dodd, a journalist, needs to recover psychologically from having left the war front earlier than he’d intended.  (Dodd fears he’s a dud).  Their best friend and mentor Richard Ehrlich is an editor expecting an article from James, which he seems unable to write, and a coffee table book from them both, which Sarah pushes through.  Richard is also dating a much younger event planner, Mandy Bloom (another mundane name that is actually symbolic), who sweetly challenges the idealized commitment of the older generation.  This makes them call into question their motivations.  Since this is actually high comedy, rather than melodrama, Mandy’s viewpoint, while initially seeming to be shallow, is as valid as Sarah’s, which is not as altruistic as she would like to believe.  The ending is actually happy because all of the characters get exactly what they want.

     The first thing the audience sees is Brian c. Mehring’s extraordinary set and lighting.  It’s a contemporary Brooklyn loft, but it could be in one of the converted historic buildings in downtown Cincinnati so it’s immediately familiar, but the prop details chosen by Shannon Rae Lutz subtly point out specific plot strands and when we find out who owns the loft, its layout and accessories are a revelation.  It’s almost like when Chazz Palminteri realized how Kevin Spacey invented the Keyser Söze story by looking around his office in The Usual Suspects.  The set and props tell the backstory of Sarah and James’ relationship.

     Michael Haney paces the show beautifully, mining both the laughs but also the dangerous pitfalls of polite, educated characters that don’t agree with one another.  I wish Margulies would wrench his characters and the audience they reflect more deeply – it’s what makes him an excellent, rather than a great, playwright.  Locals Buz Davis and Bruce Cromer as James and Richard give beautifully thought out performances and Mallory Hawks is delightful as Mandy.  Jen Johansen, who acts mainly with Indiana Repertory, is a powerhouse as Sarah.  She’s built for heroic roles because of her height, limberness (she convinces as healing physically over time, though Neil and I were divided about the overall effectiveness of her wound make up), and rich voice.  She teaches yoga and she utilizes that skill very capably here.  Let’s hope she’s back in a leading role at Ensemble or Playhouse in the Park soon.  

     The audience the night we attended was quite a bit older than middle aged, which made me wonder who will replace them in the next fifteen to twenty years?  Know Theatre attracts a younger and more ethnically diverse crowd, but their shows are nowhere near as competent and as finished (Equity status does make a difference) as those at Ensemble.  In fact, James makes fun of the type of “shattering” show that slams a masochistically grateful audience, which sums up Afghan Women at the Know last weekend.  It was sincerely acted and searing in its subject, but was both over-long and almost non-directed.  I felt it would never end in both acts. At Ensemble, students can buy tickets for $12 two hours before the show.  Okay, students – especially theatre students from the theatre programs in the region – plan to see a show at this Equity theatre that is on the level of a top Off-Broadway house.

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