Therein lies the central tension of “Time Stands Still” — for Sarah, war is the only place that time doesn’t. Protracted exposure to the world’s horrors has mutated their mutual desire: the play dances on the edge of James and Sarah’s bottled anger, especially as they’re forced to confront the warmer, cozier love between their magazine editor, Illian’s Richard, and his new, dewy girlfriend, Harris’s Mandy, an event planner who initially seems to live in a gauzy universe of Gracious Home catalogues and Tory Burch sales.
Margulies, who won a Pulitzer Prize for “Dinner With Friends,” a play tracing the delicate fissures in seemingly secure American marriages, demonstrates his gift again here for bitingly underlining the jaw-dropping absurdities of conventional social transactions. How dandy is it that he has Mandy — embodied here by Harris in a breakthrough performance of almost terrifying self-assurance — meet Sarah with a get-well gift that’s both ludicrous and touching in its naiveté? (Twyford’s looks of utter disdain get the appropriate rise from the audience.)
The moments that feel like snapshots of ordinary truth come across, in fact, as more special than the play’s narrative arc as a whole. Dramatic treatments of journalists and their battle wounds often strum the same chords: they’re tales of supremely gifted and committed pros whose emotional lives are not nearly as competently maintained. (See, for instance, “The Killing Fields.”) Hewing to this somewhat familiar outline deprives “Time Stands Still” of some measure of distinctiveness.
Still, if one is looking for a playwright who can filter out the clichés and deliver portraits of intelligent people with colorful, even bitterly funny points of view, Margulies is a writer to count on. Suffusing the plot, which takes place over the months of Sarah’s recuperation, is the intriguing issue of the unfairness of what James and Sarah must go through to try to stay together, considering the cushier circumstances of Richard and Mandy.
“You’re the Sid and Nancy of journalism,” Richard says to them, of their long affinity for disaster. Twyford and McFadden seem ideally matched in the struggle for the power to determine how they will co-exist: there’s love on each side, but bitterness is always in the mix, too. Twyford expertly conveys the resentment boiling up in Sarah, both at having to rely on James and feeling that he’s somehow let her down. McFadden balances the equation superbly, letting us in by degree on James’s conviction that he’s been eclipsed by Sarah and yet still looks for signs that she cares for him. (You have here the suggestion of what a noteworthy Martha and George they might make, in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”)