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A CurtainUp Review
Time and The Conways

by Les Gutman
Just as if now and then we could see around the corner into the future.
---J. B. Priestley

T. Butler and T. Lamm
T. Butler and T. Lamm
With this production, we are introduced to a new theater company and, for all practical purposes, a new play as well. It's not that Epic Theatre Center has not been busy: its first season has included a pair of briefly-presented "first looks" at new plays as well as a host of educational and outreach programs; but Time and The Conways is its initial full production. It is fair to assume it. too, will be a first look for most of us -- unless was a Broadway theater-goer in 1938, when this play received its first, and apparently only, New York mounting (in a production featuring what the New York Post called "the newest little British stage star," Jessica Tandy).

The good news is that Time and The Conways is a fine play, occasionally showing signs of its age but more often resonating with a striking contemporary sensibility. It's more than worthy of revival, and Epic Theatre makes an excellent first impression with this well-staged and ably-performed offering.

We meet Mrs. Conway (Jenny Sterlin), a widow, and her six children on the occasion of daughter Kay's (Abigail López) twenty-first birthday. They live in Newlingham, "an industrial suburb in England," and are of the middle class; the year is 1919. As the world attempts to right itself after the First World War, the Conway siblings are trying to find their own footing. Priestley has made them a varied group, and has spiced things up by adding a trio of party guests who just might end up figuring in their lives. As Kay contemplates what may become of them all, the second act transports us nineteen years forward in time, to the doorstep of another world war the impact of which the characters (and indeed Priestley himself) could then only imagine. By the third and final act, we are back in time where we began.

The Conways enjoy their games, and Priestly relishes in exploiting them symbolically. So the party begins with charades, moves on to hide-and-seek and ends with Mrs. C. taking a stab at fortune telling. Time is of the essence here, and lest anyone miss his theme, Priestley arms the simplest, least ambitious Conway, Alan (James Wallert), with the wisdom of Blake's "Augeries of Innocence":
It is right it should be so;
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Thro' the world we safely go.
Kay is a worrier, a would-be novelist who wonders what the future holds. Alan stands in counterpoint, seemingly care-free, cognizant that life will have its ups and downs and unwilling to fret about it too much. The other children range from Carol (Nilaja Sun), an effervescent teenager; Hazel (Melissa Friedman). a flippant looker with a studied but carefree manner; Madge (Lisa Rothe), a young socialist teacher planning to save the world from itself; and Robin (Tom Butler), just back from the military and ready to take on the world. The visitors at this party include Joan (Teri Lamm), a young woman who will become the focal point in a competition in courting between the laid-back Alan and the more aggressive Robin; Gerald (Craig Rovere), a young solicitor-to-be that Madge has in her crosshairs; and Ernest (Todd Cerveris), a bumbling but determined newcomer who has been stalking Hazel. What will become of them all? Act 2 will offer some ideas.

The cast is strong, and a pleasure to watch onstage. At the front of the line is Jenny Sterlin, who makes the Conway matriarch stern but also endearing, strong yet flawed with a weak spot for some of the clan. Among the remainder of the cast, the particular standouts are Lisa Rothe, whose characterization of Madge in both periods are perfectly executed, and Todd Cerveris, priceless as the vastly changed but never lovable Ernest. The performance quality Epic establishes as a benchmark is laudable, and Ron Russell's direction is seamless and well-considered throughout.

In contrast, the production values, by off-Broadway standards, are a let-down. It is not that the set and costumes do not evoke the period or the Conway's station, but rather that both have a thrown-together quality that don't match the effort as they might. A minor quibble that certainly doesn't detract appreciably from the show's overall appeal. Epic Theatre Center has earned a place on our "watch" list.

Time and The Conways
by J. B. Priestley
Directed by Ron Russell

with Nilaja Sun, Melissa Friedman, James Wallert, Lisa Rothe, Abigail López, Jenny Sterlin, Teri Lamm, Craig Rovere, Todd Cerveris and Tom Butler
Set Design: Thaddeus Strassberger
Costume Design: Mattie Ullrich
Lighting Design: Sean Farrell
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with one intermission
A production of Epic Theatre Center
Theatre 3, 311 West 43th Street, 3rd Flr. (8/9 Avs.)
Telephone (212) 206-1515
6/08/02-6/30/02; opened 6/13/02
TUES - SAT @8, SAT - SUN @2; $30
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 6/12/02 performance

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