Review: Time and a Family Are Shaped In ‘Time and the Conways’
By Jil Picariello, Theater Editor, October 11, 2017
Who knew the Countess of Grantham had it in her?
After years of playing the good-hearted American mom on everyone’s favorite British soap opera, Downton Abbey, Elizabeth McGovern finally gets to sink her teeth into someone more shady, and to use that British accent she’s picked up along the way. She hits it out of the park on both counts.
Her Mrs. Conway, the widowed mother of six in this J.B. Priestley drama from 1937, is narcissistic, stubborn, frivolous, and completely believable. She is everyone who has ever refused to face reality when optimism mixed with a generous dash of fantasy is so much more pleasant.
The story begins in 1919, when things in post-World War I England were on the upswing. Mrs. Conway’s mostly grown children have come through the war safe and sound, there’s a party going on in the next room, and everyone is ready to celebrate. People meet, some for the first time, some reuniting, attractions (and repulsions) spark, decisions are made, and the seeds of the future are set. And then, in one of the loveliest moments of stagecraft I’ve ever encountered, the set literally recedes before our eyes, while one character watches, longingly, from outside a window, and an identical room, shorn of much of its plush prosperity, descends from the rafters and replaces it. The present supersedes the past—but, of course, it never really does.
Now it is 1937, in the same room, of the same family, with another world war looming. The repercussions of those bygone decisions, are apparent. So much has gone wrong, in this family and in the world. So much sadness has befallen them.
How did this happen? The second act returns us to 1919 and again we see the gestation of the future. Decades overlaps for the Conways and there is some exploration of metaphysics and the nature of time. But for those (like me) who shy away from plays about concepts like time and its (possible) linearity, do not fear. This is, first and foremost, a beautifully structured play about a family, their dreams, longings, fears, and devastations.
The cast is uniformly excellent, from Anna Camp as the charming and beautiful daughter Hazel, to Anna Baryshnikov as the youngest child Carol, Gabriel Ebert as sad and doughy Alan, Brooke Bloom as the energetic socialist Madge, Matthew James Thomas as the family hero Robin, and the deeply moving Charlotte Perry as the family scribe Kay. Rounding out the ensemble are Alfredo Narcisco as the family lawyer, Cara Ricketts as a friend, and Hand to God’s brilliant Steven Boyer as the chilling climber who becomes increasingly more honest, and more awful, as the years go by.
But a special shout out must go to Neil Patel’s marvelous design. Those shape-shifting rooms say as much as any of the characters in the story. And, of course, to recent Tony winner Rebecca Taichman (Indecent) who directs the complex action with a sure hand.
Time and the Conways at the American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street through November 26, 2017. Running time 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Written by J.B. Priestley. Directed by Rebecca Taichman; set design by Neil Patel; costume design by Paloma Young; lighting design by Christopher Akerlind; and sound design by Matt Hubbs.
Cast: Elizabeth McGovern, Steven Boyer, Anna Camp, Gabriel Ebert, Charlotte Parry, Matthew James Thomas, Anna Baryshnikov, Brooke Bloom, Alfredo Narciso, and Cara Ricketts.
Cover: (l. to r.) Elizabeth McGovern, Matthew James Thomas, Cara Ricketts and Anna Camp in ‘Time and the Conways;’ photo: Jeremy Daniel.