John Boynton Priestley’s theatrical works receive praise all over the world and are common guests on New York stages. Nevertheless, one of his most well-known plays, Time and the Conways, has not been produced on Broadway since its original run in 1938.
The current revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company, which is playing at the American Airlines Theatre and directed by Tony Award-winner Rebecca Taichman, demonstrates exactly why. The play starts in 1919 with a gaudy Conway family party in the traditional British style of champagne and charades. World War I is over, one of the brothers is returning home from the army, money is flowing and intriguing love courtships are underway. Everything seems to promise a carefree future, but fate and karma prove to have the last word. Fast-forward exactly 18 years later to 1937 when the Conway family is an estranged gallery of broken relationships and failed promises.
In the second part of the play, the family reunites for the first time in several years only to discover that they are going bankrupt. Mrs. Conway, the mother of the family, engages in reckless behavior and unnecessary spending, resulting in the loss of the family’s estate.
Priestley’s play is very reminiscent of Anton Chekhov’s classic The Cherry Orchard, as it digs into prominent themes of familial drama and the self-harming carelessness of the upper class. But unlike Chekhov’s work, which had a disastrous run at the same theater last year, Time and the Conways lacks the unique, transcending magic that makes historic pieces so palpable. This production’s biggest struggle is staying relevant. When Priestley originally wrote and performed this play, Britain was dealing with the rise of populism, Nazism and an upcoming WWII while the ghost of the first war still haunted Europe. In 1938, Priestley’s play was an experimental political drama that provided sharp social criticism.
In 2017, this is a historical melodrama with anticlimactic depictions of past affairs. Even Taichman’s rhythmic and sometimes lyrical direction cannot stop Time and the Conways from being akin to a forgotten object in a history museum rather than a major theatrical event.
The advertisements for this RTC production heavily rely on the stardom of “Downton Abbey” actress Elizabeth McGovern, who plays the imperious head of the family. Yet, her already lackluster performance seems even duller in comparison to the other matriarchs on Broadway.
While McGovern’s performance fails to entice the audiences, it is Charlotte Parry who is the star of the show. Parry plays Kay, the daughter that holds the family—and the play—together. Special kudos to the actress for providing the smoothest transition from a teenager to a grown adult of the whole cast. She is the only one who “matures” in the most conventional matter while keeping her character’s traits and charming personality. Parry maintains the only dynamic relationship in the play with Tony-winner Gabriel Ebert, who plays the oldest Conway sibling, Alan. Ebert becomes the show’s heart as his melancholic detachment from reality helps put the outsider’s perspective on the downfall of the Conways.
Anna Camp, who plays the pretty sister Hazel, is distinct proof that typecasting is alive and well. Her over-the-top, narcissistic portrayal of Hazel is the same as her characters in the movie Pitch Perfect and the television show “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Camp’s only attempts to come out of her comfort zone appear in the 1937 portion of the play, but Hazel’s complete transformation, caused by an abusive marriage, comes off as pretentious and spoiled.
There is one thing that this production accomplishes with a charming virtue. Priestley’s main inspiration for Time and the Conways is J.W. Dunne’s theory of time, and experimenting with time is what this play does best.
When the audience is transported back to 1937, it is through a long scene change in which the set opens up, tragically moves to the back and gets replaced by the same set 18 years later.
Taichman and Neil Patel, the set designer, deliberately prolong the set change to represent the humiliating events that take place over two decades. It is the same room with the same furniture and walls, yet the memories of the past golden era haunt the Conways like a chromatic dream one wishes to plunge back into.
It is in those time-bending moments that Priestley’s play dusts off its stagnation and comes to life in front of the audience’s eyes.