It took five minutes into the revival of “Time and the Conways” starring Elizabeth McGovern to realize this was no “Downton Abbey,” the TV series that for six seasons featured McGovern as Lady Grantham; it took another ten minutes to support a city ordinance that would ban American actors from affecting upper-class British accents, especially shrill trills, on a Broadway stage; and after the 35 minutes of the first scene, I wondered why anybody would bring J.B. Priestley’s play back from the dead. The Roundabout production is the first time it’s been on Broadway since its debut in 1938, when it got mixed reviews (“a tenderly wistful play” Brooks Atkinson wrote, but “most of his characters are uninteresting people”), and closed after just 32 performances despite a cast that included Dame Sybil Thorndike and a young Jessica Tandy.
In that first scene we watch the wealthy Conway family – the widow (McGovern), with her four daughters and two sons – celebrate the 21st birthday of daughter Kay, an aspiring novelist, by dressing up in fake mustaches and old clothes from a bin, playing charades (mercifully off-stage) with several of their friends. Suddenly, for the second scene, the set retracts, a new one descends from the ceiling, and it is now Kay’s 40th birthday, but nobody is celebrating. The Conway family, full of cheer and optimism in post-war 1919, has soured into disappointment, financial ruin and recriminations in pre-war 1937, their friends now bitter spouses or ex-spouses or failed-to-become spouses. Kay Conway (Charlotte Parry) is a hack; the war hero Robin Conway (Matthew James Thomas) has become a drunk; the fiery socialist Madge Conway (Brooke Bloom) has become a repressed schoolteacher (just in case you don’t get that from the dialogue, she is helpfully fit with a dowdy dress and eyeglasses, in the usual lazy way of equating myopia with frigidity.) Through the characters’ energetic bickering, “Time and the Conways” briefly comes to life.
After intermission, the first set extends out once again, and we are rolled back to 1919, later in that same party from the first scene, but now, with the family members talking about what their future will be like, full of eye-rolling dramatic irony: “The point is to live….I’m going to live,” says the daughter we know will be dead by 1937.
It is my duty now to point out that Priestley’s play was influenced by the British philosopher John William Dunne’s notion of time. Mentioning this makes Priestley, and me, and for that matter Dunne, sound more erudite than we are, since Dunne’s once-popular expounding on time has not stood the test of time. As son Alan (Gabriel Ebert) explains it in the play to his sister Kay: “At any moment, we’re only a cross-section of our real selves. What we really are is the whole stretch of ourselves, all our time…”
“Time and the Conways” features a cast and a creative team who have done stellar work in the past. This is Rebecca Taichman’s sophomore Broadway effort after winning a well-deserved Tony for directing “Indecent.” Steven Boyer, who was hilarious as the puppet’s slave and the evil puppet in “Hand to God,” here portrays Ernest Beevers a shy, awkward businessman of working class origins in 1919 who becomes supercilious to the point of cruelty in 1937. Like many of the transformations in Priestley’s script, Ernest’s is too pat, but Boyer’s is impressive. Mrs. Conway calls her son Alan “a miserable clerk with no prospects, no ambition, no self-respect, a shabby man that nobody would look at twice,” but the portrayal by Gabriel Ebert (Tony winner for Matilda, whose performances I admired in both Casa Valentina and Therese Raquin) turns him into one of the two most appealing characters in the play. The other is Charlotte Parry (the English-born Broadway veteran of such fine revivals as The Winslow Boy’ and The Importance of Being Earnest) as Kay, who is arguably the central figure of the play.
It’s nice to see Elizabeth McGovern return to Broadway after a 25-year absence, but – superficial similarities to Lady Grantham notwithstanding — one senses there is a better vehicle out there for her than the shortsighted Mrs. Conway.
All ten members of the cast are individually quite fine and talented performers, and I wonder whether I would have appreciated more what they bring to “Time and the Conways” had that tedious trifle of a first scene not made time stand still.
Time and the Conways
Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater
Written 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 and Wig Design by Leah J. Loukas; Makeup Design by Leah J. Loukas;
Cast: Elizabeth McGovern, Steven Boyer, Anna Camp, Gabriel Ebert, Charlotte Parry, Matthew James Thomas, Anna Baryshnikov, Brooke Bloom, Alfredo Narciso and Cara Ricketts
Running time: Two and a half hours including one intermission.
Time and the Conways is scheduled to run through November 26, 20