Time and the Conways
J.B. Priestley's domestic drama receives a timely revival.
We know what kind of play we're going to see from the first line of J.B. Priestley's Time and the Conways. "Muthaaaah, shall we put the costumes in the back rrrroom," an actress intones, R's set to trill. Moments later, the Countess of Grantham enters stage left, posing grandly against the woodwork as she soaks up her entrance applause. Of course, this isn't really Cora of the PBS series Downton Abbey, but Elizabeth McGovern playing the similarly fabulous (though not titled) Mrs. Conway in this Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Priestley's 1937 drama. Still, the difference feels negligible in Broadway's latest episode of Anglophile Theatre.
Undoubtedly, there will be theatergoers who delight in the guarded banter of the Conway family as they celebrate the 21st birthday of daughter Kay (Charlotte Parry) with a soiree and charades. They will grin at the sight of oldest son Alan (Gabriel Ebert) in white tie and tails as he awkwardly courts the charmingly vapid Joan Helford (Cara Ricketts). They will guffaw along with Hazel (Anna Camp) and Carol (Anna Baryshnikov) as their sister, Madge (Brooke Bloom), drones on about socialism. They may even swoon as favorite son Robin (Matthew James Thomas) returns home from the Great War in his RAF uniform. The rest of us will just be bored.
Time and the Conways doesn't really get interesting until halfway through the second act, which takes place 18 years later. By then the profligate Mrs. Conway has spent most of her fortune propping up the alcoholic Robin, who is estranged from his wife, Joan. Family solicitor Gerald Thornton (Alfredo Narciso) has gathered the Conways to inform them of their dire financial situation. It seems that the only hope for salvation lies in Hazel's wealthy husband, Ernest Beevers (Steven Boyer), but the ambitious working-class capitalist is not very interested in bailing out the foolish bourgeoisie that used to peer down their noses at him.
If Priestley echoes Chekhov in this second act with Ernest as a British answer to Lopakhin, he takes a page from Kaufman and Hart (authors of the original Merrily We Roll Along) by going back in time for the third act. Here we witness the tragic errors that led this well-to-do British family down the path of destruction. While Priestley did this in an attempt to illustrate philosopher J.W. Dunne's theory that time is ubiquitous and that we only experience it sequentially because that is the way our conscious minds process it, most rational theatergoers will come to the conclusion that since we spend the most of our lives as conscious beings, that's all that matters. This is despite a late monologue delivered by sad sack Alan explaining the whole theory, which just seems like a justification for his wasted life.
Director Rebecca Taichman's production presents Priestley's timeline with inexorable precision and a twinge of sadness. Sound designer Matt Hubbs treats us to generically mournful piano and violin music as Neil Patel's first act set fades into the upstage darkness and the second act set descends from the rafters. It is exactly the same as the first act (bizarrely, none of the furniture seems to have aged in 18 years), but we can see the ghost of the original set through a scrim wall, suggesting how the events of the past haunt the present. Paloma Young's extravagant period costumes better chart the passage of time and fortune, as Mrs. Conway's clothing becomes more worn and dated, and Hazel's becomes fresh and fashionable. Hair and wig designer Leah J. Loukas ages our characters with streaks of grey and bold facial hair choices. The design is Broadway caliber, if not particularly adventurous.
The performances are also satisfying, if slightly indulgent in that way British drawing room dramas encourage. McGovern jubilantly plays to the adoring crowd, especially during a cathartic second act monologue punctuated by a slap. Bloom illuminates Madge's journey from wide-eyed idealist to uptight schoolmarm. Ebert breaks our hearts as the beta male who fades into the wallpaper rather than taking what he wants, starkly contrasting with the hungry Ernest, whom Boyer menacingly endows with slow-boil resentment and unflinching cruelty.
If you can get beyond the perfunctory tantrums and teacups, Time and the Conways could be seen as a prescient warning from the proud elite of the world's last great empire to their American counterparts in 2017. Nothing lasts forever and your hubris can only precipitate decline. More likely, it will sate Broadway's perennial appetite for British gentility and emotional sublimation. It's not Downton Abbey, but it will do.