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A CurtainUp Review
Time and the Conways

"Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine,
Under every grief and pine,
Runs a joy with silken twine.
It is right it should be so,
We were made for joy and woe,
And when this we rightly know,
Through the world we safely go."

— William Blake's "Auguries of Innocence" quoted at the end of the second act by Gabriel Ebert's Alan Conway in response to his sister Kay's mournful "if this is all life is, what's the use?" Alan follows Blake's verse with a summary of the play's theme about time not being the destroyer Kay sees, but a kind of dream that "moves us on in this life from one peephole to the next."
Elizabeth McGovern as Mrs. Conway, Brooke Bloom as Madge and Charlotte Perry as Kay (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)
Time was something of an obsession with the prolific essayist, novelist and playwright J. B. Priestley. His Time and the Conways (1937) is one of a handful of plays in which Priestley, explored various theories about the meaning time popularized by engineer and philosopher.

Contrary to Roundabout Artistic director Todd Haimes' program note, Time and the Conways which focused on Dunne's theory of simultaneous time did not fall between the cracks after a hit Broadway debut. It played only 32 performances. In fact, the best known and most entertaining of Priestley's time plays, An Inspector Calls, had a rather modest Broadway debut in 1946, and was a smash only when the Royal National Theater's production crossed the pond fifty years later. And so, while Time and the Conways is not a case of a hit play restored to its original hit status, it has a lot going for it to validate the Roundabout's bringing it to its American Airlines Theatre — not the least being the way the effect of the downward trajectory of the upper middle-class Conways in the years between World Wars I and II tends to have an all too timely resonance for Americans today.

Despite a slow to gain altitude first act, the current production is a good fit for the Roundabout and its audiences' love affair with elegantly staged British dramas with generously sized casts. Before collecting her well-deserved multiple awards for her direction of Paula Vogel's Indecent Rebecca Taichman directed Time and the Conways at the Old Globe. The Roundabout has raised the production's profile with a stellar new cast.

As a treat for Downton Abbey lovers, the Roundabout has brought on Elizabeth McGovern, as the less lovable but equally glamorous widowed Conway matriarch who with her four daughters and two sons, as well as several non-family members, make up this portrait of a family's relationships and love lives that play out in non-linear fashion to incorporate almost two decades of their past, present and future.

We meet Mrs. Conway, her six children and some guests who will play critical roles in their lives at a party for daughter Kay's (Charlotte Parry) twenty-first birthday. They live in a large house in Newlingham, a prosperous industrial suburban British city where Mr. Conway owned a company and other property before drowning. Mrs. Conway is thus able to continue her self-indulgent upscale life style and it takes the Great Depression and bad decisions to make that seemingly bottomless well run dry.

As representatives of the British middle class attempting to prosper and regain its equilibrium, Priestley has made the Conway siblings and the three party guests (others are unseen in another room outside of the family room where everything plays out) we meet a diverse group. Kay (Charlotte Parry) is a worrier, a would-be novelist who wonders what the future holds. Alan (Gabriel Ebert) is her count- counterpoint older brother, content as a corporal during the war, now also content as a town clerk and unbothered by life's ups and downs.

It's Kay's being part of the celebration in her honor and yet an at times oddly prescient observer that drives Priestley's forward and backward time traveling structure. That means the first act that's set just after World War I moves nineteen years forward to 1937 when Britain has been rocked by a disastrous economy and is on the brink of another world war. For act three it's back to that 1919 birthday party, but the giddy, chatter now more clearly reveals where and how the Conway's downward trajectory all began.

The other children include Carol (Anna Baryshnikov— yes, she's the daughter of the famous dancer), the ebullient youngest Conway. . . Hazel (Anna Camp) her mother's heir as the family beauty most likely to marry well. . . Madge (Brooke Bloom), the family's social conscience, working as a teacher but with her eye on the bigger goal of saving the world from self-centered lack of concern about equal opportunity for all. . . Robin (Mathew James Thomas), just back from the war, the obvious apple of his mother's eye, especially looking dashing in his RAF officer's uniform.

As for the non-family members here and in subsequent acts (each act really a scene), there's Joan (Cara Ricketts), a rather silly young woman who Alan fancies but is bound to lose to his showier brother. . .Gerald Thornton (Alfredo Narcisco), a young solicitor-to-be who Madge would like to integrate into her do-good future. . . Madge would like to make part of her social that and Ernest (Stephen Boyer, quite a departure from his nasty puppet possessed Hand to God teen), a deceptively shy nebbishy businessman eager to work his way into the Conway's upper-middle class world but is seen by Hazel with whom he's smitten who declares "Ugh I I'd just as soon marry a ferret."

Thougj te introductory party scene has a Downton Abbey flavor it's also the least satisfying, both in terms of the performances and the dialogue. Except for Gabriel Ebert, who's perfection in terms of clarity and richly nuanced characterization throughout, the chatter comes off too shrill and all the hints at the deeper, poignant undercurrents are overwhelmed by the fuss about the charades. That applies not just to the girlish chatter but Ms. McGovern's playing the former belle of the town and a community theater actress to the hilt. Maybe I just find charades tiresome and missed having at least one of those Downton Abbey servants on board to help with the costumes or bring out the some nibbles.

But then, without pausing for an intermission, scenic designer Neil Patel's brilliant visual coup of literally taking us to two virtually alike yet oh so different scenes. Fortunately, that bit of theatrical magic, futher enhanced by lighting and sound men Christopher Akerlind and Matt Hubbs, makes the play shed its dated feeling and come alive. It also brings out the best in most of the actors.

It's not easy to play these characters at such vastly different ages and convincingly portray the impact of unrealized ambitions, unhappy liaisons, a death in the family and the current crisis: the mismanaged and now nearly worthless Conway fortune that turns this birthday party (Kay's 40th) into a volatile family confab.

Though even the changing times and personality defining costumes and hairdos by Paloma Young and Leah J. Loukas can't make McGovern really look sixty-five, she gets fully into the persona of the often misguided, unkind lady of the manor. Her terrific face-to-face with the now middle-aged and wealthy Beevers ends in a slap that had the audience at my performance burst into applause.

Fine as McGoven turns out to be, the playwright has wisely made the unfailingly satisfying Ebert's less showy and ambitious Alan the Conway with the wisdom to give voice to the play's theme—, courtesy of William Blake's "Augeries of Innocence" at the top of this review.

While The Inspector Calls, which was written not before but after World War II, remains the best of J. B. Priestley's time plays, the story of the Conways' struggles with changing times, aging and unrealized dreams is doubly timely in the aftermath of Downton Abbey Fever and the post Trump election turmoil.

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Time and the Conways by J. B. Priestley
Directed by Rebecca Taichman
Cast: Cast: Elizabeth McGovern as Mrs. Conway, Steven Boyer as Ernest Beevers, Anna Camp as Hazel, Gabriel Ebert as Alan, Charlotte Parry as Kay, Matthew James Thomas as Robin, Anna Baryshnikov as Carol, Brooke Bloom as Madge, Alfredo Narciso as Gerald Thornton, Cara Ricketts as Joan Helford.
Set Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Paloma Young
Lighting Design:Christopher Akerlind
Sound Design: Matt Hubbs
Hair and Wig Design: Leah J. Loukas
Dialect Consultant: Deborah Hecht
Fight Director:Thomas Schall
>Stage Manager: James Latus
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes includes 1 intermission before Act 3
Roundabout Theatre Company's American Air Lines Theater 227 West 42nd Street
From 9/14/17; opening 10/10/17; closing 11/26/17.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at October 12th press performance

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