(l to r) Elizabeth McGovern, Brooke Bloom and Charlotte Parry in ‘Time and the Conways.’ (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Todd Haimes, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s artistic director, isn’t quite correct when he says in his program note that J.B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways, now being given its first-ever Broadway revival, “met with great success” in both its 1937 West End and 1938 Broadway originals. A West End hit, it actually flopped on Broadway, surviving for only 32 performances despite a British cast led by Dame Sybil Thorndike as the matriarch of the eponymous upper-class Yorkshire family, with budding star Jessica Tandy as Kay, her would-be novelist daughter. In Tony-winning Rebecca Taichman’s generally worthwhile revival, those roles now fall, respectively, to the distinctly capable talents of Academy Award-nominee Elizabeth McGovern and Tony-winner Charlotte Parry.
One of Priestley’s so-called Time Plays, influenced by the ideas of philosopher J.W. Dunne, its metaphysical theme, explicated midway through, holds that no man can be judged from the present because the present is only a momentary intersection of what he has been in the past and what he will be in the future. These thoughts, interesting as they may be, are actually a bit of a distraction in what is otherwise an accessible and, especially in Act Two, emotionally engaging drama of family discord, class consciousness, and post-World War I opportunities and failures, personal and political, in Britain on the brink World War II. We don’t need a philosophy lesson to know that life, as the play stresses, has a way of disappointing us.
Time and the Conways, set in a drawing room of the substantial Conway home, begins as the family and its guests celebrate Kay’s 21st birthday. Her sisters are the jubilantly enthusiastic Carol (a lovely Anna Baryshnikov), the socialistic firebrand Madge (a determined Brooke Bloom), and the family beauty Hazel (an appealing Anna Camp); two brothers are also present, the amusingly feckless Alan (sensitively crafted by Gabriel Ebert) and the dashing but hollow Robin (panache personified by Matthew James Thomas), still in uniform after being demobilized.
Ruling the roost is their self-centered, favorites-playing, widowed mother, Mrs. Conway, who also looks after her guests, the attractive solicitor Gerald Thornton (Alfredo Narcisco), his client, the weaselly, money-making Ernest Beevers (Steven Boyer), and Hazel’s insipid friend, Joan (Cara Ricketts). Romantic flutterings abound—Beevers for the diffident Hazel, Joan and Robin for one another, and, tentatively, Gerald with both Madge and her mother.
As the family and guests enter and leave during an offstage game of charades they express their mutual happiness and hopes for their respective futures, culminating in a moment when, in the script, Kay, alone, lapses into a vision.
As staged by Taichman, however, and designed by Neil Patel, in a stunning jeu de théâtre departing from the script, the vision emanates instead from Carol, who sits dead-eyed on the sofa as the entire drawing room (built on a raised platform) slowly slides upstage to the accompaniment of lovely music (sound design by Matt Hubbs); a ghostly, transparent version of the room then descends to stand before the first one.
Priestley’s Act Two (now the second half of Act One) takes place 18 years later, in 1937, when time has taken Carol, crushed everyone’s dreams, broken everyone’s romantic and marital relationships, shrunk their finances, and brought out their worst features.
Much as the scene’s indeterminate ending suggests otherwise, however, the play isn’t over. After an intermission we see the final act, taking us back to the party in 1919 as Kay awakens from what was actually her (not Carol’s) dream of the future, a dream that haunts her throughout the ensuing gaiety whose fragility we now recognize with ironic clarity.
Although they can’t avoid the taint of staginess during the opening party scene, the actors generally achieve the privileged British air suitable for the drawing room environment. The overdone ebullience may be intended to contrast the characters’ youthful high spirits with the depression—in both senses of the word—waiting in the wings but it lacks the dimensionality embodied in the powerful 1937 scene of mass disenchantment.
That scene, with its Chekhovian overtones, also includes the moment when Taichman has the wallflower son, Alan, take on the mantle of wisdom, first by quoting Blake, and then, in another directorial invention, stepping out of the room, onto the forestage, comforting the distraught Kay by explaining to her the meaning of time.
It’s wonderful to see the elegant Elizabeth McGovern as the disagreeable Mrs. Conway, a role superficially similar to her Cora Crawley on Downton Abbey, but far richer in dramatic colors. Steven Boyer, so remarkable in Hand of God, excels as Beevers, the nasty working-class twit turned wealthy businessman who flips the verbal bird at the condescending Conways. Charlotte Parry also makes a strong impression as the once-hopeful novelist diminished to cynical writer of puff pieces about movie stars.
With strong contributions from lighting designer Christopher Akerlind and lovely period costumes from Paloma Young, Time and the Conways is as beautiful to look at as it’s pleasing to hear. Priestley’s gem, rarely seen here but a familiar old chestnut across the pond, has its flaws but is still worth the time spent gazing at it.
Time and the Conways
American Airlines Theatre
227 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through November 26
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).