Review: ‘Time and the Conways’ at The Roundabout Theatre Company

The Roundabout Theatre Company has delivered to Broadway an interesting revival of this J.B. Priestley play that intrigued Depression audiences in the mid 1930s when it opened in New York and London. Set in 1919 in two of three scenes (with the middle one projected to 1937) it was aimed at audiences who remembered the euphoria of post-war Britain at the conclusion of WWI and related to the disappointment in the state of mind in Britain 18 years later on the brink of a second World War.

Time and the Conways is set in the fashionable upper middle class drawing room of the widowed Mrs. Conway and her six grown children, aged 16 to 26. It opens at a birthday party for one of her four daughters, a creative writer named Kay. To make the celebration even more festive, her brother young Robin Conway has just been returned home from the army safe and sound. This first act is played with enormous gusto by the six Conway youngsters who are clearly the pride and joy of their self-satisfied, stylish, and dominating mother, played by Elizabeth McGovern, fresh from her many successful seasons on the series Downton Abbey where she played a very different sort of mother. McGovern has thrown caution to the wind, and come up with a wild virago of a character who has high hopes for all of her children for very clearly stated reasons of her own.

Gabriel Ebert, Anna Baryshnikov, Anna Camp, Elizabeth McGovern and Matthew James Thomas. Photograph by Jeremy Daniel.

The middle act of the play — actually the second scene of the first act in this Roundabout version — shows us what happened to this happy breed after 20 years of reality had hit them all. Spiced by the addition of the odd stranger or two, nothing has turned out to be as planned or envisioned. Robin has become a disillusioned drunk, his brother Alan has remained “just a clerk” despite his mother’s prediction that he would make his mark at “something or other.” Madge, the serious daughter, whose youthful energies were all spent and diminished on her passion for socialism, has become an embittered matron. And so it went with Hazel, Kay, and sweet Carol, the youngest of the siblings, whose fate was determined by forces outside her control.

Priestley’s play is inspired by the teachings of the popular philosopher John William Dunne, whose writings claimed that all parts of our lives happen simultaneously (even though we only notice the current section. It’s Kay’s visions of the future).

Anna Baryshnikov, Charlotte Parry, Matthew James Thomas and Anna Camp. Photograph by Jeremy Daniel.

Tony award-winning director Rebecca Taichman (Indecent and several plays by Sarah Ruhl) has jumped in with both feet to give us a vigorous interpretation. The opening act, which introduces all the family and several outsiders, is played with almost too much vigor and relish. A game of charades is intended to look like fun, but it’s overworked and overplayed. Perhaps it was intended to show great contrast to the second act revelations of disappointment and despair that enveloped the Conways and their status in a changing social order. Only Mrs. Conway remained undiminished, and in a brave performance that makes her less than attractive Ms. McGovern had a fine time distancing herself from Cora Crawley, the lady she so delightfully played in “Downton Abbey.”

Physically, this production is beautifully realized by Neil Patel, Paloma Young and Christopher Akerlind who have conjured the sets, costumes, and lighting that evoke another time and place. Priestley’s play wanted to point out to his audiences the dangers in living too recklessly, and with too much abandon. As Taichman reads him, he’s “warning his audience about the dangers of living that way…. this principle of greed overwhelming us.” One can see this resonates with today’s malaise in the world, and as a result it is certainly the sort of piece that is in line with the mission of the Roundabout, “to bring ‘hidden’ classics such as these back to Broadway stages to an entirely new generation of audiences.”

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Time and the Conways plays through November 26, 2017, at The Roundhouse Theatre Company performing at the American Airlines Theatre – W. 42nd Street in New York, NY. For tickets, call the box office at (212) 719-1300 or purchase them online.

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Richard Seff
RICHARD SEFF has been working in theatre since he made his acting debut in support of Claude Rains in the prize winning DARKNESS AT NOON, and he agreed to tour the next season in support of Edward G. Robinson, which took him across the nation and back for nine months. When it was over and he was immediately offered another national tour with THE SHRIKE with Van Heflin, he decided to explore other areas, and he spent the next 22 years representing artists in the theatre as an agent, where he worked at Liebling-Wood, MCA, eventually a partnership of his own called Hesseltine-Bookman and Seff, where he discovered and developed young talents like Chita Rivera, John Kander, Fred Ebb, Ron Field, Linda Lavin, Nancy Dussault and many others. He ultimately sold his interest to ICM. When he completed his contractual obligation to that international agency, he returned to his first love, acting and writing for the theatre. In that phase of his long and varied life, he wrote a comedy (PARIS IS OUT!) which brightened the 1970 season on Broadway for 107 performances. He became a successful supporting player in film, tv and onstage, and ultimately wrote a book about his journey, SUPPORTING PLAYER: MY LIFE UPON THE WICKED STAGE, still popular with older theatre lovers and youngsters who may not yet know exactly where they will most sensibly and profitably fit into the world of show business. The book chronicles a life of joyous work working in a favored profession in many areas, including leading roles in the regional theatres in his work in Lanford Wilson's ANGELS FALL. His last stage role was in THE COUNTESS in which he played Mr. Ruskin for 9 months off Broadway. Five seasons ago Joel Markowitz suggested he join him at DCTheatreScene. His accurate and readable reviews of the New York Scene led, when the time was right, for his joining DCMetroTheaterArts to continue bringing news of the Big Apple's productions just to keep you posted. He is delighted to be able to join DCMTA and work with Joel and hopes that you like what he has to say.


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