Saturday, May 19, 2012

“Time May Stand Still . . . But Not The Audience”

Two weeks ago today, Joshua and I and our former landlady—who is now my middle brother’s landlady (but not for much longer, since my middle brother recently signed a contract to purchase the house next door)—had a daylong theater outing. We attended a Saturday matinee performance at The Guthrie Theater and a Saturday evening performance at Park Square Theatre.

“Time Stands Still” by Donald Margulies was the Guthrie offering we attended.

Margulies, on the adjunct faculty at Yale, has been writing plays since the early 1980s, yet “Time Stands Still” was the first Margulies play I have seen.

I suspect it will be the last.

Set in Brooklyn, “Time Stands Still” is a story about three journalists, two of whom have been injured—one physically, one mentally—while covering events in Iraq.

The two injured journalists are in an unsuccessful and unsatisfying—and perhaps even abusive—relationship. The female, flagrantly unfaithful to her mate until physically disfigured in Iraq (her disfigurement, facial and otherwise, presumably put an abrupt end to her caterwauling infidelities), has an unattractive personality: she is irritating, abrasive, not very bright, and needy and insecure. The male, too, is needy and insecure—as well as emasculated—and has a deep-seated streak of servility. Theirs is an ugly, unhealthy relationship. By psychiatric standards, the two surely are co-dependents.

The third journalist is an editor. A blowhard, he arrives to visit the two injured journalists—and brings with him his new girlfriend, a young, naïve bumpkin many years his junior. The role of the bumpkin is supposed to represent a “real” person with “real” emotions. She is an outsider in the self-referential, narcissistic world of the Brooklynites, with their mindless and tedious recitations of dogma and cant.

The play’s action depicts the unraveling and raveling of the diseased co-dependency between the two injured journalists, the maturation of the peculiar relationship between the blowhard editor and the bumpkin, and the eruption of conflicts between each couple and between the two pairs of couples.

The play never gets off the ground. From the opening curtain, it is seen that the characters are not intelligent or thoughtful persons, possess no admirable qualities, and have nothing interesting or worthwhile to say on any subject—all of which becomes patently clear to the audience even before it has had a chance to settle into its seats.

Five minutes into the play, the audience begins to tune out the proceedings and bury its head in the program booklet. Ten minutes into the play, the audience stops reacting to laugh lines. Fifteen minutes into the play, the audience starts conversing among itself. Twenty minutes into the play, the audience begins to leave the theater. I have never seen a production in which walkouts occur so early in the first act or in which such a substantial portion of the audience departs permanently at intermission.

Walkouts have plagued the current Guthrie production of “Time Stands Still”. At the performance my parents attended, almost half the audience failed to return after intermission. My father’s characterization of the walkouts at the performance he and my mother attended: “Time may stand still . . . but not the audience.”

If “Time Stands Still” is representative of his efforts, Margulies is not a good playwright.

Margulies’s work in “Time Stands Still” is that of the television scriptwriter. His dialogue is a sequence of clichés; his thoughts—if they may be called thoughts—are those of a high school sophomore.

Margulies’s characters lack specificity and individuality. They are archetypes, not real persons. As archetypes, they partake of every known device from the realm of daytime drama. In fact, they do everything but recite, prior to a confessional utterance, “Sit down, Marion.”

The conflicts Margulies creates are one-dimensional and obvious, another attribute direct from soap opera. His conflicts derive from the arched-eyebrow school of domestic drama, and might as well come with their own organ accompaniments.

I suspect Margulies wants audiences to sympathize with his characters and their situations, but the characters are so cardboard—and so unattractive—and the situations so mundane that it is impossible to take either characters or situations seriously.

The characters in “Time Stands Still” are irresponsible, unpleasant, unthinking, unintelligent, half-educated and supremely self-obsessed. They are so off-putting, it becomes difficult not to wish them ill.

“Better off they had all died in Iraq” was a comment I heard from a departing audience member at intermission.

“Better off they not propagate” was my response.

Margulies would have been wiser not to have celebrated this crew of dim-witted Brooklynites but to have skewered it. A change of only twenty-five or thirty lines, coupled with new line readings, might have turned the play into redeemable comedy.

Margulies is not a man of intellect or ideas, although I suspect he aspires to such. He has no themes to offer, nothing original or memorable to say. His play suggests he has never read a serious book, or taken a course in philosophy, economics or political science, or had a meaningful conversation with anyone in possession of a first-class mind. The content of the typical Sunday Supplement would surely be over Margulies’s head.

And yet, I fear, Margulies probably believes his play involves a serious examination of the role of journalism in an age of instant electronic news dissemination. His characters “debate” the ethics and implications of their journalistic endeavors endlessly. The discussions are chilling in their lack of sophistication.

Happily, no one need worry about encountering Margulies’s plays with any frequency. Margulies cannot write stage dialogue—and, consequently, he will never have a hit.

There is no rhythm, no “snap”, no shape to Margulies’s dialogue. Margulies’s patter is abjectly “unplayable”.

This shortcoming explains the fact that Margulies’s name remains unknown even to the most assiduous playgoer. Margulies has been sitting at his typewriter for more than thirty years, devotedly pecking away, yet no one has heard of him because he lacks an essential skill in his chosen field of work: the ability to create and fashion competent stage dialogue, the sine qua non for a play’s—and a playwright’s—success.

I have not a clue why The Guthrie chose to present “Time Stands Still”—unless The Guthrie had wanted to offer to its subscribers a living demonstration how bad contemporary American playwriting has become. Even gruesome, totally unwatchable television dramas on the “Lifetime” channel are more penetrating and stylish than “Time Stands Still”.

The Guthrie gave “Time Stands Still” a better production than the material warranted. The physical production was superb, the cast excellent. The director, Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling, is a skilled hand at contemporary plays, but Dowling was able to find no shape or rhythm in Margulies’s script.

The Guthrie box office suffered with its production of “Time Stands Still”.

Critic’s notices were not positive. It was the play itself, and not the production, that had received mixed notices from the local press—and everyone in the Twin Cities knows that mixed notices from the local press are the same thing as bad notices. Nothing gets a bad review in area newspapers unless it happens (or originates) out-of-town.

Word-of-mouth for “Time Stands Still” was even worse than the unenthusiastic press response. Word-of-mouth was extremely negative—and word-of-mouth is very important in the Twin Cities, since even the most dedicated theatergoer cannot possibly see every production in town and must rely upon first-hand reports in determining which productions should be seen and which productions may safely be ignored.

“Time Stands Still” was ignored in Minneapolis.

I predict The Guthrie will never again present a Margulies play.


“Doubt: A Parable” by John Patrick Shanley was the Park Square Theatre offering we attended.

Josh and I had seen “Doubt” on Broadway in June 2006, shortly before the original Broadway production had closed. We had seen the replacement Broadway cast, which had featured Eileen Atkins in the lead.

I do not much care for “Doubt”. “Doubt” is schematic and commercial—it was written so as to take advantage of then-current headlines—and the play has no genuine depth.

Two weeks ago, however, “Doubt”—following immediately, as it did, upon the heels of the inept “Time Stands Still”—came across as one of the great masterpieces of the English-speaking stage.

The plot is spare. In 1964, a Roman Catholic nun, who serves as Principal of a Roman Catholic school in the Bronx, fears that a priest at the school has become involved with a male student. She confronts the priest, who denies the charge, and she informs the student’s mother, who—oddly—seems untroubled and unconcerned about the allegation. All of this is seen through the eyes of a young nun, who is torn between belief and disbelief regarding the veracity of the charges. Throughout the play, the action and conduct of the Principal, the priest and the student’s mother are susceptible to many shifting interpretations and judgments, all of which remain unresolved at play’s end.

In a good performance, “Doubt” can work—and I thought the Park Square Theatre performance was perfectly acceptable.

The actress portraying the Principal carried the play. She was nastier than necessary, and certainly one-dimensional compared to the great Eileen Atkins, but her energy and resolve kept the proceedings alive and moving forward.

On Broadway, Eileen Atkins had been magnificent in the part of the Principal. Atkins had brought to the role countless qualities: fevered spirituality, high moral principle, iron-willed determination, Irish shrewdness (and twinkling Irish eyes), and a deceptively-placid exterior paired with a sharp “look” that could wound at twenty paces. To these qualities, Atkins had added a Miss Marple-like sense of fun and adventure: the entire performance, she had seemed to be on the verge of exclaiming enthusiastically, “Let’s get to the bottom of this mystery!”

These many qualities had made Atkins’s portrayal overwhelming and unforgettable; it was one of the finest, most multi-layered performances I have ever seen on any stage. (I have been told that Atkins was vastly superior to the actress that had originated the role on Broadway—and who had won a Tony Award for her work.)

If no Eileen Atkins, the Park Square Theatre actress was, at the least, commanding. In fact, she overpowered everyone else on stage. One knew immediately that this woman would get her own way, by hook or by crook, in anything to which she set her mind.

The actor portraying the priest was the weak link in the cast. His weakness tended to unbalance the play.

The actor was, however, highly sympathetic, which helped to maintain tension. Since the actress portraying the Principal was not sympathetic in the least, a battle for the audience’s sympathy between these two figures ensued. Should the virtuous but obnoxious battle-axe be awarded the audience’s sympathy, or the depraved and vile man who seems so kind and gentle on the surface? This battle for sympathy became the key ingredient if not the driving force of the production. A battle for sympathy was probably not what the playwright had in mind when he wrote “Doubt”, but at least it helped make the Park Square Theatre production engaging.

We enjoyed the performance, which appeared to rivet the Park Square Theatre audience—but I would not want to see “Doubt” again anytime soon.

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