THEATER

Theater review: 'Time Stands Still' and 'Lombardi' on Broadway

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 22, 2010

NEW YORK -- Say what you will about the increasingly jaundiced eye the public casts on journalists: On Broadway these days, they are still occupying the moral high ground, cropping up as careful diviners of human frailties, as conflicted truth-seekers driven by conscience.

Members of this beleaguered guild will be comforted to discover that playwrights can still differentiate between the squawking rabble rousers of cable and the quieter practitioners who simply get on with the business of finding out what's going on. In two new Broadway plays, journalist characters are the linchpins for examinations of complex personalities -- and not in ways that portray them as selfishly advancing their own agendas.

The more accomplished of these works, Donald Margulies's "Time Stands Still," features the abundantly gifted Laura Linney as a war photographer back home, struggling with the physical and psychological toll of a tour in Iraq. In the far less effective bio-play, "Lombardi," a sportswriter portrayed by the fine young actor Keith Nobbs attempts an evenhanded approach to the profile of a type-A football coach who tries to dominate him, in the way he does his running backs and linemen.

Though set four decades apart, and following vastly different trajectories, "Time Stands Still" and "Lombardi" both hinge on the idea that putting oneself on the line for a story is inherently theatrical: For any reporter who's an honest broker, the act has unforeseeable consequences. In "Lombardi," which opened Thursday night at Circle in the Square Theatre, Nobbs is a fairly green Look magazine writer who finds the man he's been assigned to cover is not as slavishly devoted to the public's right to know as he is.

The play stars Dan Lauria as Vince Lombardi, the coach who turned the Green Bay Packers into a powerhouse franchise (and would later do a stint with the Redskins). Directed by Thomas Kail ("In the Heights") and based on a book by David Maraniss, an associate editor of The Washington Post, the 90-minute piece is a boilerplate character study that efficiently evokes a roughhewn football life in the mid-1960s, but fails to stir up much in the way of magnetizing drama.

Its audience is probably sports fans who revel in the Lombardi legend: Seated in the first row of the arena-style theater on the afternoon I saw the play was a man wearing a green and gold Packers jersey who looked positively blissful.

Still, for all the attention playwright Eric Simonson trains on Lombardi's strategy talks and ruminations about winning, the most intriguing scenes of "Lombardi" are between Nobbs's fictional Michael McCormick and Lombardi's wife, Marie, played to whiskey-voiced perfection by Judith Light.

While "Lombardi" is meant to be the tale of a love between a man and a game, the show's more revealing relationship is between an interviewer and one of those subjects who fill out the fringes of a story. For Michael is depicted here as an honorable fellow, one who's seeking access for his readers, not dirt. Watching him at work, trying to ingratiate himself with Marie, to develop the kind of bond that will coax out of her a bit of insight or usable detail, you're privy to a subtler sport, one that good reporters play every time they take the field.

This may not be the game most ticket buyers to "Lombardi" pay to see; the play allows them merely to bask in a sports hero's glow. If that's all you require from the experience, "Lombardi" may be sufficient. For others, however, the predicaments of the big man in the spotlight aren't as involving as the smaller one who's clutching the notebook.

"Time Stands Still," which opened earlier this month at the Cort Theatre, is built around the aftershocks of a story. In casts and on crutches, Linney's Sarah has returned to the Brooklyn apartment she shares with James (Brian d'Arcy James), a writer with whom she's covered wars. A roadside bomb almost killed her, and now James is ready for safer assignments. But Sarah is still in love with her ringside seat on combat, and the question of whether she's capable of walking away from that addiction hangs in the air.

Margulies's invigorating premise, of course, can apply to couples in any profession: What happens when one person is eager to step out of a familiar pattern and the other is standing still? The question takes on a bit more heft than it might otherwise because of the nature of Sarah's job, and the responsibility she feels to being a neutral digester of the world's horrors. Trying to shake that neutrality, her editor's fiancee, played with an apt, wide-eyed innocence by Christina Ricci, asks, after seeing her photos, how she could have stood by and watched some of her subjects die?

"The camera's there to record it; that's life," explains Linney, who gives a persuasive account of a woman incapable of seeing a dividing line between herself and her work. It's a portrayal that, among other things, reaffirms one's faith in the essential work of the professional witness.

Lombardi

by Eric Simonson. Directed by Thomas Kail. Set, David Korins; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Howell Binkley. With Bill Dawes, Robert Christopher Riley, Chris Sullivan. About 90 minutes. At Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W. 50th St., New York.

Time Stands Still

by Donald Margulies. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Set, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Rita Ryack; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski. With Eric Bogosian. About 2 hours 10 minutes. At Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., New York. For both shows, visit http://www.telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.


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