It feels ungrateful to be impatient with any play that gives Laura Linney a flinty, complicated character to put under her high-powered microscope. And it's at least as unsettling to be frustrated by "Time Stands Still," the Donald Margulies drama that bothers to grapple with authentic and timely questions about the nature of happiness amid a world of suffering.
Margulies, whose "Dinner With Friends" won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, is an accessible, engrossing teller of modern stories about educated, financially comfortable New York professionals. I guess nobody calls them yuppies anymore, especially as they hit middle age, but the label, with its shadow of superficial seriousness, still feels uncomfortably apt.
Linney brings her quiet, dazzling honesty to Sarah, a war photographer badly injured in a roadside bombing in Iraq. Brian d'Arcy James - the fine actor finally freed from his Shrek makeup - is her longtime boyfriend James, also a journalist, who feels guilty for having come back to New York with a nervous condition before she was blown up.
We meet them as she is struggling into their Williamsburg loft with her leg in a cast and her face splattered with shrapnel wounds. He is hovering. She is resenting her compromised independence. He's thinking about marriage and writing a book about horror movies. She can't wait to heal up and get back to the action.
Obviously, there is trouble ahead. Enter their good friend and editor - the seductively sly Eric Bogosian - who is almost criminally delighted with his callow new love, Mandy, who is much younger, pregnant and, according to Sarah, "a moron." Alicia Silverstone plays her with just enough mercy and self-awareness to be dangerous.
Daniel Sullivan, who directed Linney in the 2004 revival of Margulies' more insightful "Sight Unseen," has a tender yet cutting way with modern naturalism. The result has the easy watchability of good TV or a minor indie film.
But Margulies is after bigger prey here. The problem is that we don't know how he feels about his characters or how he wants us to feel about them. Mandy says both awful things and awful truths with equal conviction. Sarah is either heroic or a ghoulish adrenaline junkie. James is writing about "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," but Margulies isn't clear as to which bodies, if any, have been snatched.
WHAT "Time Stands Still"
WHERE Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.
INFO $57-$111; 212-239-6200; manhattantheatreclub.com
BOTTOM LINE intelligent acting, superficial plot