Playwright J. B. Priestley once commented, “Only an idiot would consider me a naturalistic dramatist.” True enough, but it wouldn’t be an idiot who suggests that Priestley took naturalism — realism, even — and fooled around with it to his heart and mind’s content. For he strongly responded to the notion of time, which he saw as malleable (as did Albert Einstein, whose influence Priestley keenly felt). In his plays, he was delightfully, pessimistically partial to gimmicks. He impulsively jockeyed around with time.
That’s where the wonderfully gimmicky Time and the Conways, now on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre under the auspices of Roundabout Theatre Company, comes in. In three acts, Priestley bounces time on his knee. Out of respect for this weighty shenanigan, how high and wide he bounces it won’t be explained here. It’s enough to report that Priestley set the play in 1918 and the year it first bowed, 1937. An idiot might guess that the earlier time brims with post-World War I optimism and the latter time with pre-World War II anxiety.
These discrepant views are thus witnessed through the seven-strong Conway family. As the action begins, Mrs. Conway (Elizabeth McGovern of Downton Abbey) joins her children — Kay (Charlotte Parry), Hazel (Anna Camp), Madge (Brooke Bloom), Carol (Anna Baryshnikov), Alan (Gabriel Ebert) and late arrival Robin (Matthew James Thomas) — in charades. As it unfolds, Kay, whose 21st birthday celebration this is, worries that her hope of becoming a novelist is a pipe dream. Hazel revels in being the family beauty. Madge flaunts her budding socialist views. Carol, the youngest, is lively and sweet. Alan: happy to fade into the wallpaper. Although Mrs. Conway is a vivacious friend to all her children, it’s most especially to Robin, a strapping bloke with unformed ambitions.
The outsiders at the celebration include Joan Helford (Cara Ricketts), who has eyes for Robin — to the dismay of Alan. The Conway’s financial adviser, Gerald Thornton (Alfredo Narciso), has tentative eyes for Madge. The more downscale Ernest Beevers (Steven Boyer), whom Thornton has brought, has been timidly dogging Hazel, to her uppity embarrassment.
In the two acts that Priestley devotes to the spirited evening in 1918, interactions between and among the 10 figures are as theatrically involving as an audience might wish. One of the points tidily made is arguably the most crucial: the Conways’ high-handed attitude toward Ernest, a misfit in his social class but a man, at the same time, with a noticeable indication of becoming someone with substance.
When 1937 rolls around and the Conways, on Kay’s 40th birthday, gather for a financial update from Gerald, the scene is rife with unfortunate reversals. Not thrilled with a journalist’s career of covering celebrities, Kay is a jaded, cigarette-smoking drinker. Madge? An angry matron at a girls school. Hazel? The dominated wife of now-thriving Ernest. Carol? Nowhere to be seen. Alan? An inconspicuous clerk. Robin? A drifting husband to destitute, cowering Joan; an absent father to his unseen children.
So time has been unkind to the Conways, who may be taken as a metaphor for England. But Priestley has more to suggest, for everyone expounds on time repeatedly. Ironically, Alan, the seeming nonentity, addresses it most directly. Attempting to comfort Kay, he talks sympathetically about its elasticity.
Ironically, too, the 1937 Alan appears to be the sole contented Conway. He substantiates his beliefs on time and other matters by quoting William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”: “Man was made for joy and woe.” The sentiment suggests to him — and, somehow, to Kay — that if time isn’t linear, then all things blend.
Many elements of director Rebecca Taichman’s production help to establish the playwright’s reassuring (some might insist invalid) conviction. First is the cast, headed by McGovern, who surely chose to play Mrs. Conway because the character is a Downton Abbey-like figure unlike Cora, Countess of Grantham. She could be interpreted strictly as a domineering woman and social snob, but McGovern finds her flightier, unobserving. Most of the cast, especially as Taichman directs them in act one, pushes hard to sound as cheerfully British as possible. Later, they prove their mettle. Parry, Boyer, Bloom and Baryshnikov are special standouts.
Paloma Young’s costumes, redolent of two distinct periods; Leah J. Loukas’ wigs and hair designs; Christopher Akerlind’s lighting; and Matt Hubbs’ sound all lend authority to the proceedings. It is thus curious that while Neil Patel’s set does much for the 1918 acts, his work for 1937 is not as successful. His late ’30s look leads to part of Taichman’s directorial problems — which I only reluctantly mention, since I do not want to discourage theatergoers from seeing a first-rate play.
Taichman and the Roundabout deciders have turned Priestley’s three-act play, which I believe requires both intermissions, into a two-act presentation with a pause between acts one and two. The 1937 set, lowered from the flies to cover 1918, does not need a dreamy look to achieve Priestley’s desired effect. Rather, it should demonstrate clearly how 19 years have tugged at the walls and the furniture. Not to have a curtain rising and falling on each act, as was traditional in 1937, is also a loss for the theater of today, in which audiences usually see the set as they enter.
Maybe the truth is worth repeating: time has had its way with Time and the Conways. Yet if this is what time has wrought, temporarily or permanently, then this much we can confirm: Priestley’s heartfelt play is timeless.