By Karen Isaacs
The curtain rises on the first scene of Time and the Conways now at Roundabout’s American Airlines theater through Nov. 26 and you will assume you are in for a typical ‘20s-‘30s British drawing room comedy.
The set by Neil Patel is a large, well-furnished room with a door to a hallway. Sounds of gaiety emanate from off-stage. Soon four young ladies enter, the four Conway sisters who vary in age from late teens to mid-twenties. The occasion is Kay’s 21st birthday party and they are going through costumes for a charade. But all is not exactly as it seems. It is 1919, a year after WWI ended; their father has died a few earlier in a bizarre accident, and one of their brothers is about to be demobilized from the army.
Though this is a well-to-do family, they are not the “idle rich.” One sister (Madge) is a school teacher and ardent socialist, Kay is an aspiring writer/novelist, only the oldest sister (Hazel) seems to live a life of ease; her goal is a successful marriage and living in London. Carol, the youngest is still in her teens. Their elder brother (Alan) works as clerk for the township. It is clear he has the least ambition of them all.
When Mrs. Conway enters (Elizabeth McGovern) she seems almost as young and vivacious as her daughters. By the time the scene has ended, Robin has returned home and quickly decided to marry one of Hazel’s friends (Joan). A dour young man (Ernest) who is new to town has been introduced brought by another friend, Gerald. Hazel recognizes Ernest as the man she has seen around town and has felt as though he was stalking her.
The scene changes with the help of a set coming down from above and moving forward. It is 1937 but the set looks exactly like the earlier one. Now the entire family has gathered again, well almost of them, the youngest daughter is missing. Life has not necessarily been easy for some of the Conways.
The reason for the gathering? Mrs. Conway has money troubles and the question is what to do. The house is not worth what was it was (this is still the depression) and she has not necessarily been careful about her funds. We learn what has happened to the siblings in the almost twenty years. Madge is now head of a school and is not only adamant about not helping to support her mother, but seems very angry with her. Kay is a journalist working on magazines without the illusions or ideals she had as a budding novelist. Alan is still working the town, He’s the one that has been keeping a watch on his mother.
The marriage between Robin and Joan has deteriorated; he drinks and has left her with minimal support for their children. His big dreams have come to naught. Gerald is now Mrs. Conway’s solicitor.
Hazel is trapped in an unhappy marriage to Ernest who is cold and sneering. She may have money but she is dominated by her husband who obviously has little regard for her or the family.
Act two takes us back to the 1919 party, as the guests leave and we see the seeds that will lead to the 1937 situation. Why Madge is so angry with her mother, why Ernest views the family so negatively and why Joan made the wrong choice.
J. B. Priestley is best known for his layered works that examine British society (and all societies) in both a political and philosophical framework. This play which was written in 1937, uses the Conways to illustrate the actions and ideas that led Britain to the situation it found itself. At the same time, he is also discussing the philosophical concept of time.
His theories of how different dimensions link the past, present and future are woven into the plot of this play. The ending, when Kay realizes that Alan is the happiest of them all – and had the least ambition, is fascinating. Alan tells Kay (they are still in 1919) that in the future he could tell her something that would help her.
Tony winner Rebecca Taichman has directed this play keeping it in both the time and style of the period and the drawing room comedy. She allows the audience to slowly explore the depths of Priestley’s play. In this she is aided by the period costumes by Paloma Young and the effective lighting by Christopher Akerlind and sound by Matt Hubbs.
One of the attractions of this production is the return of Elizabeth McGovern to the New York stage. McGovern, who most recently played Lady Cora in Downton Abby, is an experienced stage actress. She handles the role expertly. Her Mrs. Conway is almost as youthful (dare we say flighty) as her young daughters in the first act and by the time we get to 1937, she is still not truly mature. Her way to deal with difficulties is to ignore them or engage in wishful thinking.
It is hard to fault any of the supporting cast members. Gabriel Ebert has the challenge of imbuing the duller Alan with a sense of longing and quiet desperation. He does this so well, that your eyes are constantly drawn to him. Brooke Bloom as Madge, Charlotte Parry as Kay, Anna Barysknikov as Carol and Anna Camp as Hazel are all excellent. Steven Boyer as Ernest shows the lower class striver with a huge chip on his shoulder. He doesn’t seem to have an ounce of humanity in him.
Time and The Conway is at Roundabout’s American Airline Theatre, 227 W. 42nd Street through November 26. For tickets visit Roundabout Theatre.