October 21, 2017

Moments Linger in "Time and the Conways"

The word sentimental has become one of the deepest insults you can hurl at a play. But I don't mind a bit of sentimentality if it's done well. And although the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of J.B. Priestley's Time and the Conways has some flaws (most notably the shaky British accents by a mainly American cast) it's being done very well.

The play, which moves back and forth between two time periods, is one of a series of works that Priestly wrote to explore philosopher John William Dunne's idea that the past, present and future are all happening simultaneously even if our human minds can only grasp time as a linear concept.

In equal parts a family drama, a comedy of manners and a metaphysical meditation, Time and the Conways begins in 1919, shortly after World War I has ended. Its protagoinists are the Conways, a large upper class family of four daughters and two sons, headed by their recently widowed mother who is eager to put grief behind her and celebrate all the glorious possibilities ahead for her children. 

As the play opens in the weakest of its three acts, the family is celebrating the 21st birthday of Kay, the sister with writerly aspirations, and the return home from the army of family golden boy Robin. Most of the festivities occur offstage but we do get to meet various would-be love interests for the siblings.

They include the flirty neighbor Joan who catches the eye of both Robin and his less glittery older brother Alan; a young lawyer named Gerald who shares a desire to do good in the world with the family socialist Madge; and Ernest, an outsider with working-class roots who looks up to the Conways, especially the family beauty Hazel, but who is looked down on by all of them, except for the youngest sister Carol.

That's a lot of characters and a lot of storylines and Priestley, who has bigger things on his mind, only sketches them in. But the play—and especially this production—gets going in the second act, which flashes forward to 1937, just before Britain is about to enter World War II and as the Conways are forced to reckon with the choices they've made over the decades. 

Their disappointments are made all the more painful by the third act, which returns to 1919. But the play not only moves back and forth in time but also breaks the fourth wall as two characters find themselves lost in a time warp and struggling to make sense of the recondite themes that most intrigued Priestley.

All of this was no doubt quite heady when Time and the Conways was first staged in London in 1937 and later for a very brief run on Broadway in 1938. It's less provocative nowadays when fractured narratives in TV shows like "Mr. Robot" and novels like Emily Fridlund's "The History of Wolves" are so commonplace, but the play's underlying themes of dashed dreams and the compromises that life demands remain relevant.

Director Rebecca Taichman, fresh from her Tony win for helming Indecent, doesn't shy away from the sentimentality of what happens to the Conways but she and—accents aside—her top-flight cast give each storyline a poignant clarity (click here to read an interview with the director).

Elizabeth McGovern, now best known as the mother on TV's "Downton Abbey," gets the final bow for portraying the more self-centered matriarch of the Conway clan but the always-amazing Gabriel Ebert gives a quietly sympathetic performance that turns the awkward sibling Alan into the emotional center of the play.

Still, the true star of this production is Neil Patel's set, which, aided by Christopher Akerlind's delicate lighting, underscores Dunne's concepts about the confluence of time with an elegant coup d'theatre that truly makes the case that we are all haunted by the past.

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