By Tulis McCall
Time and the Conways, the current Roundabout production now at the American Airlines Theatre is a curious and thoughtful piece of writing by J.B. Priestly. He uses J. W. Dunne‘s Theory of Time as the frame on which he hangs the cloth of this play. Time, according to Dunne, is not linear. Past, present and future intermingle, and all we have to do is pay attention.
The Conways are delivered to us in two separate stops along their timeline. The first is 1919. The occasion is the 21st birthday of Kay (Charlotte Parry). Everyone is gathered. Mrs. Conway (Elizabeth McGovern), Kay’s sisters Hazel (Anna Camp), Madge (Brooke Bloom) and Carol (Anna Baryshnikov), brother Alan (Gabriel Ebert) and a surprise return home from the front by brother Robin (Matthew James Thomas). There are also three guests who escape the party proper and make it into the back room where the family gathers to prepare for chapters of “charade” they will present to the guests. Gerald (Alfred Narciso) and family friend and solicitor, his guest Ernest (Steven Boyer) and another old family friend Joan (Cara Ricketts).
Once everyone has arrived the hooraying and hob knobbing can begin. The beastly war is over. Thank God we will never have to go through that again. London is beckoning the young ‘uns. Kay is planning on a career as a famous novelist who write something new and different. Robin plans to take on the world of motor cards. Hazel wants to be ravished somewhere far away from this village. Mrs. Conway is looking forward to relying on her good fortune and living out her life with her children near her. Only Alan seems satisfied with his job as a clerk and life in general. He has no goals other than to be happy where he is at any given moment.
In a beautiful staging sleight of hand we slide forward 19 years to 1937. Kay is 40. Gone is the color and sparkle of the hope in 1919. Instead we move into a sort of mauve suspension in time. Nothing has worked out the way everyone had planned. Fortunes have faded. Dreams have evaporated. Nerves are raw and, surprisingly for a British family, everyone is keen on telling each other exactly what is on their mind. None of it is good. With the exception of Alan, whose temperament has never changed.
The third chapter twirls us back to the party that opened the tale. Here we see what Priestly had kept hidden from us. The cavalier actions, the arrogance, the overbearing matriarch whose agenda is narcissism with a velvet glove. Madge’s tirade of hope and determination is positively heartbreaking. Bloom and Narciso soar just before they plummet (an awkward moment that lacked credulity). We watch Kay’s sense of premonition taking over and we wonder was it there before? Are we only seeing it now because we have the benefit of hindsight? Questions, questions.
As the scene folds its tent it is Kay and the steady Alan (Ebert gives a masterful performance) who leep off the Ferry to Nowhere and are taking shelter in each other’s arms. In their isolation lies hope. Just flickering but still alive.
The direction of Rebecca Taichman was surprising here. After her masterful turn with Indecent, I expected her to have more of a firm hand. More than once the cast seems confined to the stage because they have lines to give, not because their character has an agenda. With the exception of Ebert and to a lesser extent Parry, no one has an purpose when they come on stage. The blocking is unexceptional, the accents differ wildly (a few of the actors change theirs as they speak) and there is no inner drum that drives them. The set is barren – not a plant or book or chatchka. No signs of life at all. This is not a home in any sense of the word. It is a staging area.
All in all this is a bland production of an earnest philosophy. As on audience member was heard saying to his companion on the way out, “You have to accept the premise. It’s about Time.” Actually it is about a whole lot more, but you wouldn’t know it from this production.
TIME AND THE CONWAYS – Written by J.B. Priestley; Directed by Rebecca Taichman
WITH Elizabeth McGovern, Steven Boyer, Anna Camp, Gabriel Ebert, Charlotte Parry, Matthew James Thomas, Anna Baryshnikov, Brooke Bloom, Alfredo Narciso and Cara Ricketts
The creative team also includes Neil Patel (Set Design), Paloma Young (Costume Design), Christopher Akerlind (Lighting Design) and Matt Hubbs (Sound Design).
TICKET INFORMATION: Tickets for Time and the Conways are available by calling 212.719.1300, online at roundabouttheatre.org, and in person at any Roundabout box office: American Airlines Theatre Box office (227 West 42nd Street); The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center.
Limited engagement through November 26, 2017