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Time and the Conways

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere - October 10, 2017

Time and the Conways by J.B. Priestley. Directed by Rebecca Taichman. Scenic Design by Neil Patel. Costume Design by Paloma Young. Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind. Sound Design by Matt Hubbs. Hair, Wig, and Makeup Design by Leah J. Loukas.
Theatre: American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Tickets: roundabouttheatre.org


Elizabeth McGovern, Charlotte Parry
and Anna Baryshnikov
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

The ability to play with time in one way or another is one of the most useful tools a dramatist possesses. Since time travel is not (yet?) possible for human beings in real life, the employment of flashbacks, flashes forward, non-linear storytelling, scenes presented in reverse chronological order, action occurring in different eras simultaneously, and other such devices can add tremendous depth and resonance to any dramatic tale, and can also greatly enhance irony and comedy. Some examples that leap to mind are Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, Harold Pinter's Betrayal, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along (based on the play by Kaufman and Hart), and the recently seen, severely flawed and muddled but nonetheless intriguing Bruce Norris play A Parallelogram.

J.B. Priestley (1894-1984) was fascinated by J.W. Dunne's theory of the nature of time and consciousness, which Dunne called "serialism." In a tiny nutshell, the concept is that, while people experience time as a linear progression, past, present, and future are actually one, and we can sometimes perceive this in precognitive dreams and visions through a sort of bleed-through. The theory inspired Priestley to write a series of works categorized as his "Time Plays." One of them, An Inspector Calls, was revived on Broadway in 1994 in a brilliant Royal National Theatre production. Now the Roundabout Theatre Company is staging another entry in the series, Time and the Conways, as a most welcome offering at the American Airlines Theatre. (The production premiered at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in 2014.)

The titular clan of the play is a wealthy Brit family whom we meet in 1919, shortly after the conclusion of "the war to end all wars." (If only.) Mrs. Conway and her six children, plus a few guests, are gathered to celebrate the 21st birthday of one of the daughters, Kay, a budding novelist. The mood is festive not only for the happy specific occasion, but also because things in general seem to be going so well for the Conways (and England), with unlimited hopes and shining prospects for the years to come. Yet, at the end of Act I, Kay has an odd presentiment of the future, and the last image we see is of one of her sisters seated alone in the room. . . .

Act II flashes forward to 1937, by which time the clouds of a terrible new war were beginning to gather over Europe. As for the personal lives of the Conways, these formerly rich and happy folks have suffered bitter disappointments, failures, unfulfilled potential, severe financial hardship, and even a death in the intervening years. Then, at the start of Act III, we're back in 1919, with the action recommencing just a few seconds after the final moments of Act I, and Priestley gives us a few hints of what will eventually bring about the Conways' reversals of fortune. (Since this is a British play written and first produced in the middle years of the 20th century, you probably won't be surprised to learn that class consciousness and snobbery has a lot to do with it—also, an unfortunate real estate decision.)

The characters, themes, and subject matter of Time and the Conways are involving enough that the play would no doubt be worthy even without its shifting chronology, but that element makes it an extraordinary work, as does the fact that two of the characters discuss the very nature and perception of time. Such talk is all the more moving for present-day audiences, who know what has happened to England and rest of the world over the 80 years that have passed since the play's premiere, including the epic tragedy of World War II.

The Roundabout production has a single intermission between the second and third acts, and the full-view change in Neil Patel's set between the 1919 of Act I and the 1937 of Act II is quite a coup de théâtre. The effect is heightened by painstaking period details in the excellent work of costume designer Paloma Young, lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, and hair, wig, and makeup designer Leah J. Loukas.

Any production of this play rises or falls on the ability of the artists involved to make the audience fully believe we are seeing slices of the Conways lives in two different eras 18 years apart. Director Rebecca Taichman and her exceptionally talented cast deftly create the illusion with the help of the aforementioned designers. Another plus is that everyone in the cast seems credibly British, although I believe only two of them actually are. (Let's give a nod to the work of dialect consultant Deborah Hecht.)

Elizabeth McGovern is spot on as the generally clueless family matriarch whose misjudgments and attitude are at least partly responsible for some of what befalls the Conways. Her aristocratic beauty and the plummy, affected mode of speech she adopts for this role make it all the more devastating, when, at one fraught moment in 1937, Mrs. C. delivers a bitter diatribe in which she catalogs everyone flaws but her own. Charlotte Parry clearly communicates Kay's disappointment at having become the sort of writer she did not want to be, and she beautifully plays several moments when the character is suddenly disturbed by visions of the future. In these moments, she is warmly comforted by Gabriel Ebert as her quiet, sensitive brother Alan, who seems very much in tune with Dunne's concept of serialism and the idea that "at this moment, or any moment, we're only a cross-section of our real selves."

Among the other Conways, there's excellent work by Brooke Bloom as the socialism-spouting Madge; Anna Baryshnikov as the lovely, young life force Carol; Matthew James Thomas as Robin, who returns from the war full of beans but isn't able to make much of himself; and Anna Camp as Hazel, who chooses the worst possible husband in the lower-class opportunist Ernest Beevers, played to the hilt by Stephen Boyer. Rounding out the solid cast are Alfredo Narciso, a warm presence as family solicitor/friend Gerald Thornton; and Cara Ricketts as the effervescent Joan Helford, who understandably loses much of her spark through her unhappy marriage to Robin.

"If I knew then what I know now. . ." is, safe to say, a feeling that everyone of a certain age has experienced. Time and the Conways explores the emotion in a way that's still striking in the play's 80th anniversary year, and must have seemed quite astounding in 1937. It's tempting to think that Priestley might have envisioned how this piece would be perceived by audiences in 2017, and who knows? Maybe he did. At any rate, here's hoping that the Roundabout revives more of his "Time Plays" in—you should pardon the expression—the future.









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