The ineluctable force that touches all our lives – the day-to-day, year-to-year process by which the present becomes the past, and the future bears down upon us – is the melancholy subject of “Time and the Conways,” a 1937 play by J.B. Priestley that has been given a stirring, spiffily cast revival at the Roundabout Theatre Company. Watching this moving portrait of an upper-middle-class British family grappling with the changes that time brings might be compared to looking in a mirror equipped with a time-lapse photography mechanism, so we can watch the skin sag and the lines collect by the minute.
Doesn’t sound cheering? Fortunately Priestley, a prolific playwright and novelist perhaps best known to theatergoers for “An Inspector Calls,” was an expert dramatic craftsman as well as a natural entertainer. He draws his fracturing family portrait in delicate, compassionate and occasionally funny strokes, and the excellent cast, led by the director, Rebecca Taichman, draws us into their lives with a natural warmth and ease. We watch in wincing sorrow and sympathy as the characters’ youthful hopes and dreams warp and wither – as they tend to do, whatever your social class.
Brightness beams from the stage at first, in a merry scene set in the drawing room of a handsome house. Elizabeth McGovern, her career burnished to a new luster after “Downton Abbey,” plays a similar if less grand character here, the widowed matriarch of the Conway family. (Written in three acts, the play is here performed with just one intermission.) The first and third acts take place on the same evening in 1919, as the family is hosting a birthday party for Kay (Charlotte Parry), who has just turned 21.
Rushing in and out are Kay, an aspiring novelist, and her brothers and sisters. Hazel (Anna Camp), regarded as the prize beauty, becomes scandalized when she learns that a family friend, Gerald Thornton (Alfredo Narciso), has brought an odd little man with him, Ernest Beevers (Steven Boyer), a skulking fellow with a not-quite-top-drawer accent whom Hazel has noticed eyeing her in town. She puts him in his place when Gerald introduces him. Hazel has ambitions of a prince of a husband and a glamorous London life in her future.
Rather dismissive of her more frivolous sisters is Madge (a fiercely no-nonsense Brooke Bloom), who has already acquired political convictions and embarked on a teaching career. The sole male Conway present – at first – is the retiring Alan, whom the skilled Gabriel Ebert imbues with an affecting shyness and diffidence; slightly hunched, Alan seems forever to be inching away from the action, as if he doesn’t quite feel at home in his own home.
The temperature of the party rises from warmth to something approaching joy when, unexpectedly, the golden boy, Robin (Matthew James Thomas), hurtles into the room, announcing that he’s finally been “demobbed” after serving in the war, and casts an admiring glance at a family friend, Joan Helford (a lovely Cara Ricketts), to his mother’s apparent discomfort.
Priestley had a political streak (the British class system: toxic), but also a mystical one. He was fascinated by various theories about time, which he incorporated into some of his plays, and he saw chronology as less linear and more fluid and permeable. (As Mary Tyrone put it: “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future too.”) Some people, in his view, might be gifted with an ability to see around time’s corners, and divine the shapes of future events in the shadows of the present.
In “Time and the Conways,” the present is 1937, when the second and darkest act of the play takes place and the shadows have clearly gathered. The pristinely posh set, by Neil Patel, slowly rises to reveal the same room, but with slightly shabbier furniture, and walls that are transparent scrims exposing the family to the winds of social change. Here we watch as the characters assemble again, for a colloquy to determine whether the family’s finances can be sorted out to avert disaster. Time has not treated the Conways with benevolence.
Taichman (the Tony Award-winning “Indecent” director) and her supremely good cast make this transition register with an almost savage sharpness. The would-be novelist Kay now drips a cynicism that Parry etches with crystalline precision. Waiting for the others to arrive, she wryly notes that she must get back to London soon, to interview yet another film star – not quite the life in letters she had hoped for. Madge has grown into a grim, hard-edged character who makes plain the contempt she feels for at least some of the family. (In the last act, the terrific Bloom shows us with fervent energy the ebullient Madge the younger one might have grown into.)
Robin is again at first absent, but his now-wife Joan has come. When he does arrive, Thomas’s jittery false bonhomie makes vividly clear the brutal changes time has wrought in his character: visibly debauched, Robin has more or less abandoned his family, and failed to live up to his doting mother’s hopes.
Hazel, meanwhile, remains a pearly if faded beauty. Her chic suit and furs have come at a high cost. Hazel’s marriage to Beevers was clearly one of opportunism; gone is Hazel’s blithe, coquettish charm, replaced in Camp’s subtle portrayal by a strictly contained unhappiness.
Only Beevers seems to have weathered the years profitably. In Boyer’s tense, controlled performance, Beevers has transformed himself from the insecure interloper into a successful businessman. But his gruff greeting indicates that while Beevers acquired his prize wife, he will never really forgive her family – or perhaps himself – for their social superiority. Ebert’s withdrawn Alan, meanwhile, is the only Conway who seems to have changed little. Not expecting much from life, he hasn’t got much, although he retains a gentle kindness.
McGovern, whose simpering Countess of Grantham in “Downton Abbey” was probably no one’s favorite character (certainly not mine), is superb in this central act. Mrs. Conway’s elegant social surface remains more or less intact, as does her breezy belief that somehow things will come out all right – they always do for people of their sort, don’t they? But as tensions flare, McGovern uncorks with a frightening ferocity the searing sense of disappointment that gnaws at Mrs. Conway’s soul. She’s quick to reach for the sherry, and eventually lashes out at more than one of her beloved children, excoriating them for failing to live up to their potential, or rather her ideals of their potential.
In the final act, set later in the evening of that now-distant party, we will come to see more clearly how the puzzle pieces of the characters’ lives have sorted themselves out (or failed to), where the seeds of doubt, uncertainty and future disappointment have been sown. Anna Baryshnikov (daughter of Mikhail) here glows as the youngest Conway, Carol, who darts about the room like a firefly, a demure embodiment of the life force – and a symbol, too, of its fragility. But it is Parry’s Kay who keeps our focus. As the party winds down, Kay grows increasingly uneasy. The light in her eyes dims and she seems to withdraw – or, rather, to be possessed by the mysterious sense that the carefree life they have been living carries within it something sinister ahead.
Priestley is not always subtle in pointing out how precisely things have gone wrong for the characters; some ironies seem to land like bricks, and while the fog of disillusion is convincing, we in the 21st century cannot be expected to find all his revelations to be, well, revelatory. But for the most part “Time and the Conways,” presented here with impressive polish, has weathered the years with impressive grace. Time can be cruel to people, but on occasion it can at least be kind to works of art.
“Time and the Conways” opened at the American Airlines Theatre on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017.
Creative: Written by J.B. Priestley; Directed by Rebecca Taichman; Scenic Design by Neil Patel; Costume Design by Paloma Young; Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind; Sound Design by Matt Hubbs; Hair and Wig Design by Leah J. Loukas; Makeup Design by Leah J. Loukas.
Producer: Roundabout Theatre Company.
Cast: Elizabeth McGovern, Steven Boyer, Anna Camp, Gabriel Ebert, Charlotte Parry, Matthew James Thomas, Anna Baryshnikov, Brooke Bloom, Alfredo Narciso, Cara Ricketts.