About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Time Stands Still

Yesterday I spoke about my Next to Normal trip on Sunday. Now to talk about the 2nd part of my theatre day.

With the blizzard on hand, the offerings at the TKTS discount booth were more robust for the Sunday evening shows than might be expected, but I stuck to my game plan and got a seat for the play Time Stands Still, in part because I didn't think it fair to ask another musical to compete with my fresh memories of Next to Normal. 

Time Stands Still is a drama with a strong pedigree. Playwright Donald Margulies has a half dozen Tony and Drama Desk nominations, I recollect him best for Collected Stories, an All About Eve protege drama set in the publishing world. Director Daniel Sullivan has been directing high gloss dramas for a long time, my first of his I'm Not Rappaport with Cleavon Little (Blazing Saddles, Tony for Pippin) and Taxi's Judd Hirsch some 25 years ago. It had opened in a limited engagement on Broadway earlier in the year, closed, they decided it was so good and Laura Linney so amazing in her performance that they should give people a second chance to see, and it will end up with around four months playing at the Cort when it closes at the end of January.

So of course this show reflects high quality gloss. The lead is played by Laura Linney, who is a three-time Academy Award nominee, a three-time Emmy winner, a Tony nominee. She plays a war photographer badly injured by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan who is coming home and starting her recovery, her face and limbs shrapnelled, her leg in a major cast, her arm in a sling. She's assisted by her partner and fellow photographer played by Brian D'Arcy James, who coincidentally enough moved into this from having previously played the role of the father in Next to Normal. He's been nominated multiple times for every award Broadway can provide. The photo editor at the magazine they work for most often is played by Eric Bogosian, a winner of multiple Obie Awards and a Drama Desk. And his new gf/fiancee is played by Christina Ricci, whom most of us will know and love from the Addams Family movies. High quality gloss, in great abundance.

And more gloss still, a typically gorgeous set by John Lee Beatty, thirteen times a Tony nominee and twice winning. He tends to be very realistic, and here he's created a dream of a Manhattan loft space.

Now, this glossy go-to director of great plays with a set from the go-to guy for these kinds of sets, all of this acting talent, it isn't being wasted on empty words. No, Daniel Margulies is an impeccable craftsman, and especially in the first act the script is note-perfect, just that mix of helplessness and determination as you'd expect from someone with her job who doesn't like her current circumstances. Christina Ricci's role is wonderfully written. She isn't aware that there was a movie named Brazil and is momentarily confused when the conversation turns to the topic of Brazil. So she gets out a notebook and jots down the movie, and you just know she's probably going to actually rent it or at least read up on it in the way of the person we all know who diligently studies the word of the day on the word a day calendar in the belief this constitutes self-improvement. It skirts perilously close to caricature but never becomes, and Ricci fills the part quite well. Even when the obligations of the script require people to leave the stage at convenient times, it's done without strain. The "who's going to go and get ice cream" ritual is enacted exactly like it would happen if it were happening in real life, as opposed to dramatic purposes. The bathroom visits are perfectly timed. The script is dealing with extreme circumstances but real ones, and doing so in a way that seems utterly real.

I wish the whole play could be as good as the first half hour, but eventually it has to become a play, with complications, where the script is still comfortably better than your run-of-the-mill but starts to show the creakiness. The first creak comes when we find out that Linney and James hadn't both been in Afghanistan when she was injured, he had things he needed to deal with. You know then that if you just wait a bit there's going to be some kind of emotional explosion on stage when we find out what those issues are, though this being a good play I will confess there was a second part of that revelation that I didn't see coming, but which once arrived does play out in the exact ways we would expect. When there's a wedding, you know quite correctly that we won't be seeing a later scene set on the couple's fifth anniversary.

Perfect script, no, but let's be clear that a Jez Butterworth from Mojo could learn some things by studying a consummate professional like Donald Margulies.

Laura Linney deserves her Tony nomination. She hits every line, gets every note, is always emotionally true to what she's saying both when the script is pitch perfect and when it's starting to creak under the mechanics of the play. It's the kind of performance that carries you over and beyond the rough spots in the script. Ricci as I said is perfect in her role. When the second act requires her character to start showing a little more edge, she manages to put that over as well, and you believe the character really has grown or has actually been hiding something beyond that slightly goofball veneer. Eric Bogosian, if you've seen the play or the film of Talk Radio, you'll know he can be a very very strong personality, and I was kind of worried going in that he might overpower. Not at all. In fact, during the quieter moments of the script it's almost like he's set to become the second coming of Tony Roberts, who's always been very successful in Woody Allen movies and in several plays as the guy who's kind of quietly there. But when it's time for Bogosian's character to explode a bit, suffice to say Bogosian explodes, quite convincingly. Brian D'Arcy James was to me the weak link of the foursome. When the writing was at its best, he was, but when the writing requires him to do functional things, he doesn't show the same ability as the other cast members to cover up.

Sadly, it's very difficult for plays like this to succeed without stars in today's Broadway. It's even hard with a good musical like Next to Normal or for a budding young talent like Kyle Dean Massey to have a kind of development system, where you'll write a role for the young star or look forward to a new Tom Kitt the way you once anticipated the new Sondheim. But every once in a while, they manage to come along.

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