Elizabeth McGovern, until recently the gracious mistress of PBS’s “Downton Abbey,” has a far more fractious household to manage in “Time and the Conways,” J.B. Priestley’s 1937 drawing-room play about the fluctuating fortunes of a well-to-do family in postwar England. Mrs. Conway’s six grown children are played in a hodgepodge of acting styles in this Roundabout Theater Company revival directed by Rebecca Taichman. But even an imperfect Priestley play offers food for thought, and McGovern is always a pleasure to watch.
Nobody looks good in the gracefully written but too-broadly acted first scene of the play, which is set in 1919. (In the original production of this flawed work, this scene was the entire first act; on these shores, an intermission at this point might cause a stampede for the exits.) The first World War is over and the Conways are in the mood to celebrate. After all, their own soldier-son, Robin (Matthew James Thomas, a dull prettyboy in uniform), has come home unscathed. But the buoyant feelings of relief, hope and great expectations that Priestley sensed in the UK at the end of the war are spoiled here by comic hysteria and hammy acting.
The party in full swing at the hospitable Conway house, built in comfortably decorous style by set designer Neil Patel, isn’t for Robin, the pampered younger son who is expected to succeed brilliantly at something-or-other in the postwar economy worthy of his non-existent talents. It isn’t even for his self-effacing elder brother, who came home to little fanfare. The occasion is the 21st birthday of sister Kay (Charlotte Parry, consistently smart and sensitive to nuance), the creative daughter who plans to write brilliant novels.
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In terms of dramatic structure, the party is also the occasion for Priestley to introduce and identify all the principals in the family.
Alan (Gabriel Ebert, who grows and grows in this subtly sly role), the eldest, has taken a desk job (“Just a clerk, y’know”) at the Town Hall. Madge (Brooke Bloom), the serious one, sees herself as a Socialist firebrand who will give brilliant speeches and save the world. Hazel (Anna Camp), the beautiful daughter, wants to make a brilliant marriage. Sweet Carol (Anna Baryshnikov, totally charming), the youngest, is eager to start her life. Friends like the businessman Ernest Beevers (Steven Boyer, overdoing the low-class accent) and flighty Joan Helford (Cara Ricketts, giving a silly performance of a silly girl), are also drawn into the social mix as potential marriage partners.
At the center of it all is the egocentric but vivacious Mrs. Conway, a great beauty in her day and still the belle of the ball, who wants this wonderful moment to never end. “I feel we can all be happy again,” she coos, outdoing all her daughters at dressing up and entertaining the guests in the other room. “Now that the horrible war’s all over and people are sensible again.” Selfish and snobby she may be, but McGovern (who looks wonderful in the flattering black gown Paloma Young designed for this endless scene) doesn’t pretend otherwise.
There’s an air of desperation about the game of charades that Priestley surely wanted in this scene. But important lines keep getting lost in all the giddy nonsense of putting on clown noses, fright wigs, and silly costumes. And while the party would seem to celebrate new beginnings, the rebirth of a nation’s lost idealism, only Baryshnikov, who is quite young herself, conveys the sense of hope and innocence that Priestley also intuited at the end of the devastating war in which he served and never forgot.
The second act, which is set almost twenty years later, in 1937 – in a scene change that is executed with a great visual flourish — takes the Conways into the future they made for themselves. Now that they no longer have to play young and stupid, the cast seems to perk up, even in roles that now show them older, wiser and vastly more cynical.
It would be unkind to reveal all the changes in their lives (the men have mostly turned into beasts); but it must be said that Kay, the earnest girl novelist, is now a hard-bitten journalist on the despised celebrity beat. “I tell myself too many people are writing novels,” she says, with a wry laugh. Parry makes a nice subtle job of showing how her life has hurt, but not hardened her. Bloom is kind to Madge, the gung-ho Socialist who hit an ideological wall. And Camp’s Hazel, who was never kind, is awful to Alan, who shows new signs of life in Ebert’s sensitive perf.
Only Mrs. Conway hasn’t changed. Under McGovern’s gentle physical touches, she’s less agile, more subdued. But scratch her surface (at your peril), you’ll find she’s still the same thoughtless, self-centered beauty who thinks nothing of insulting her children to their faces. “When you were younger, I never liked you as much as I did Hazel,” she tells Kay, “but now I think I was wrong.” The only alteration in her character is that, in addition to their adoration, she now expects them to solve her financial problems.
Like Carol, forever the baby of the family and never far from her mind, Kay has presentiments of something “out there” — beyond this world. “You feel, quite suddenly, that it isn’t real enough – and you want something to be real.“ That’s one of several references to the author’s theme of the illusion of linear time, a notion taken from the metaphysical philosopher John W. Dunne that time past, present, and future co-exist in different dimensions.
Priestley best articulates his faith in that soothing belief system in the last movement of the play, when Kay has a metaphysical epiphany vividly realized by Neil Patel (set), Christopher Akerlind (lighting), and especially Matt Hubbs (sound). It’s a great scene, but first we have to get there, and the erratic directorial style makes that rougher than it needs to be.
Broadway Review: ‘Time and the Conways’
American Airlines Theater; 734 seats; $139 top. Opened Oct. 10, 2017. Reviewed Oct. 6. Running time: TWO HOURS, 20 MIN.
A Roundabout Theater Company presentation of a play in two acts by J.B. Priestley.
Directed by Rebecca Taichman. Sets, Neil Patel; costumes, Paloma Young; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound, Matt Hubbs; hair & wigs, Leah J. Loukas; dialect consultant, Deborah Hecht; fight director, Thomas Schall; production stage manager, James Latus.
Elizabeth McGovern; Steven Boyer, Anna Camp, Gabriel Ebert, Charlotte Parry, Matthew James Thomas, Anna Baryshnikov, Brooke Bloom, Alfredo Narciso, Cara Ricketts