Couple #1: War photographer Sarah Goodwin (Laura Linney) has recently been injured overseas in a terrorist explosion—with injured arm, leg and various scars on face and body to prove it—and after several days in a coma, has returned her common law partner and sometime collaborator, correspondent James Dodd (Brian D’arcy James) to their Williamsburgh loft, where he will be nursing her back to health. She is more than feisty, she’s unapologetically belligerent. And successful. James is not precisely a failure, but his freelance career has seen better days, and worthier assignments than the ones he gives himself of late (i.e. a study of horror films on contemporary youth). They’ve been together for eight years.
Couple #2: Their occasionally mutual editor and good friend, mid-50ish Richard Ehrlich (Eric Bogosian) is on hand to help out and also urge them to finish a text-and-photos book project chronicling what they’ve witnessed; and unexpectedly—at first—brings along his newest ladylove Mandy Bloom (Christina Ricci), unsophisticated and sweet—and not quite 30. (Sarah’s first impression of her is that she’s unsuited to Richard not only because she’s age-inappropriate, but because she’s a “lightweight” and needles him into outright defensiveness over it.)
So what have we got here, themewise: Whether or not surface and career commonality is sufficient—or needed—to “legitimize” a long term relationship. How or whether the “commoner” has a place in the company of “the elite.” How expectations based on profile can be thwarted by the developments of layered intimacy. And—in addition to what’s implied by the thumbnail sketch above—the themes of whether one has the right to free world comfort and complacency when on the other side of the globe exists horror and atrocity; and whether it’s enough to expose those horrors to the free world without taking a first-hand active part in stopping or reducing the magnitude of the ones you’re on hand to witness.
That it’s all heady and provocative stuff is undeniable. That the playwright frames it all within domestic discussion and debate, bereft of “important” bombast, is almost unimaginable. That he pulls it off is the near-miracle.
Under the direction of Margulies’ frequent collaborator Daniel Sullivan, the quartet of players provide wonderfully shaded portraits, the rich writing leading to equally rich characterizations. This is not a play in which no one is quite what they seem to be, but more subtly, in which no one is without a hitherto unforeseen dimension that makes What They Seem to Be a less obvious affair than you (or they) first thought. (Come to mention it, that’s a theme too.)
title, like Sarah’s profession of photographer, is tacitly ironic, because yet another
theme is the shifting playing fields upon which relationships take place,
despite the things we yearn to cling to and the things we take for granted.
Unlike the contents of a photo, time won’t stand
still, it refuses to (remember that Sondheim lyric? “Now goes quickly. See, now
it’s past!”) this new Margulies play provides elegant testimony to
why—with laughter and tears and, dare I say it, timeless honesty…