New York City Theater
"Time and the Conways"
American Airlines Theater
It starts as a typical English drawing-room comedy: Lovely costumes, lovely setting, lovely people playing dress-up charades between reminiscing about the past, planning for the future and entertaining party guests in the present. All terribly chic, though also hard to understand at the beginning.
But this is the touching, provocative “Time and the Conways,” by that master of ironic tempus fugit, J. B. Priestley. What begins as “jolly” and “cozy,” ends up as dissolute and empty. The gimmick is these people, moneyed, seemingly happy, not only do not know what’s ahead, they’re blindsided by the turns of events. For the past, present and future exist, in Priestley’s world, on the same continuum.
Mrs. Conway (Elizabeth McGovern), whose husband drowned years ago, has four daughters and two sons, all grown. A woman who thinks being real sounds “a little morbid,” she lives in a fantasy world of money and property where, now that the war is over, “we all can be happy again.” Acts One and Three take place in1919, just after World War I. Act Two is set in 1937, just before World War II, thus seesawing between weariness and fear, hope and despair.
In Act Two, we find life has not been good to the Conways: irritations, disappointments, opportunism and uncertain family finances all threaten their posh existence. To tell more details would spoil the mystery in this work, as it would in other Priestley plays like “An Inspector Calls” and “Dangerous Corner.”
Like her handling of last season’s “Indecent,” director Rebecca Taichman (who won a Tony for that production) directs with a light but focused touch to reveal the universal through the particular. McGovern is resolute and flighty, domineering and loving. She leads a standout cast, backed by superb technical support: Neil Patel’s jaw-dropping sets, Christopher Akerlind’s lighting, Paloma Young’s costumes and Matt Hubbs’ sound.
If viewed simply as a slice of upper-crust life, this is a work about flimsy people. If also viewed as a metaphysical mystery, it’s rich with allusions to class, politics and humanity. Nothing is as it seems. We cannot know or control the future. We become what we always were, only more so.
Priestley’s beliefs, derived from philosopher John William Dunne’s theories about the nature of consciousness and dreams, lead to one of the Conway daughter’s saying, “There’s a great devil in the universe, and we call it Time,” to which one of her brothers adds, “Time doesn't destroy anything. It merely moves us on—in this life—from one peephole to the next.”
Thoughtful and discomfiting, “Time and the Conways” is a play of “joy and woe.” As such, this Roundabout Theater production is worth attending and pondering.
--David A. Rosenberg
Oct. 26, 2017