The Roundabout Theatre Company has delivered to Broadway an interesting revival of this J.B. Priestley play that intrigued Depression audiences in the mid 1930s when it opened in New York and London. Set in 1919 in two of three scenes (with the middle one projected to 1937) it was aimed at audiences who remembered the euphoria of post-war Britain at the conclusion of WWI and related to the disappointment in the state of mind in Britain 18 years later on the brink of a second World War.
Time and the Conways is set in the fashionable upper middle class drawing room of the widowed Mrs. Conway and her six grown children, aged 16 to 26. It opens at a birthday party for one of her four daughters, a creative writer named Kay. To make the celebration even more festive, her brother young Robin Conway has just been returned home from the army safe and sound. This first act is played with enormous gusto by the six Conway youngsters who are clearly the pride and joy of their self-satisfied, stylish, and dominating mother, played by Elizabeth McGovern, fresh from her many successful seasons on the series Downton Abbey where she played a very different sort of mother. McGovern has thrown caution to the wind, and come up with a wild virago of a character who has high hopes for all of her children for very clearly stated reasons of her own.
The middle act of the play — actually the second scene of the first act in this Roundabout version — shows us what happened to this happy breed after 20 years of reality had hit them all. Spiced by the addition of the odd stranger or two, nothing has turned out to be as planned or envisioned. Robin has become a disillusioned drunk, his brother Alan has remained “just a clerk” despite his mother’s prediction that he would make his mark at “something or other.” Madge, the serious daughter, whose youthful energies were all spent and diminished on her passion for socialism, has become an embittered matron. And so it went with Hazel, Kay, and sweet Carol, the youngest of the siblings, whose fate was determined by forces outside her control.
Priestley’s play is inspired by the teachings of the popular philosopher John William Dunne, whose writings claimed that all parts of our lives happen simultaneously (even though we only notice the current section. It’s Kay’s visions of the future).
Tony award-winning director Rebecca Taichman (Indecent and several plays by Sarah Ruhl) has jumped in with both feet to give us a vigorous interpretation. The opening act, which introduces all the family and several outsiders, is played with almost too much vigor and relish. A game of charades is intended to look like fun, but it’s overworked and overplayed. Perhaps it was intended to show great contrast to the second act revelations of disappointment and despair that enveloped the Conways and their status in a changing social order. Only Mrs. Conway remained undiminished, and in a brave performance that makes her less than attractive Ms. McGovern had a fine time distancing herself from Cora Crawley, the lady she so delightfully played in “Downton Abbey.”
Physically, this production is beautifully realized by Neil Patel, Paloma Young and Christopher Akerlind who have conjured the sets, costumes, and lighting that evoke another time and place. Priestley’s play wanted to point out to his audiences the dangers in living too recklessly, and with too much abandon. As Taichman reads him, he’s “warning his audience about the dangers of living that way…. this principle of greed overwhelming us.” One can see this resonates with today’s malaise in the world, and as a result it is certainly the sort of piece that is in line with the mission of the Roundabout, “to bring ‘hidden’ classics such as these back to Broadway stages to an entirely new generation of audiences.”
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Time and the Conways plays through November 26, 2017, at The Roundhouse Theatre Company performing at the American Airlines Theatre – W. 42nd Street in New York, NY. For tickets, call the box office at (212) 719-1300 or purchase them online.