The future. Two words that are simultaneously hopeful and terrifying (especially in 2017). How much of what’s to come should we really be able to foresee? And if we could foresee our lives five, 10 or 20 years from now, would we really want to? Such troubling questions should linger in the mind of anyone who sees the Roundabout Theater Company’s incisive revival of J.B. Priestley’s deceptively complex 1937 play Time and the Conways, now at the American Airlines Theatre.
Further, under recent Tony Award winner Rebecca Taichman’s nuanced yet unfussy direction, the play’s many other themes – including the greed and myopia of Britain’s post-WWI upper middle-class and the cruelty families inflict onto each other intentionally and otherwise – all come to in sharp focus through the work’s three lengthy scenes, two set in 1919 and one in 1937, all in the same living room. (If you’re expecting a drop of a curtain or a turntable to accomplish this “set change,” let me assure you the talented designer Neil Patel has a nifty trick to unveil.)
In each of these scenes, we’re dealing with the same 10 characters, most of whom we find out are both changed and unchanged by two decades of post-War life – starting with Mrs. Conway (Elizabeth McGovern), a mostly foolish widow who fancies herself a great mother, but is essentially far more concerned with her own happiness and self-image than anyone else’s. (The character has many shades of Ranevskaya from Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.)
While one may walk into the show expecting McGovern to offer up a variation on her most famous role, Lady Grantham on PBS’ Downton Abbey, the reality is far different. The luminous actress lets go here. Given the chance to portray a woman who is alternately flamboyant and feisty – but rarely sensible – she holds little back. Yet McGovern is savvy enough not to turn Mrs. Conway into a true monstre sacré, thereby engendering just enough of our sympathies.
As for the rest of the cast, just as she did in Indecent last season, Taichman proves herself to an expert in putting together an ensemble. As the Conway children, Anya Baryshnikov (yes, Mikhail’s daughter) is positively angelic as the sweet-natured Carol. Brooke Bloom is anger and bitterness personified as the socialist schoolteacher Madge. Anna Camp (initially unrecognizable in a brunette wig) is ideally flighty as the beautiful, materialistic Hazel. Gabriel Ebert is superb as the unambitious, seemingly happy Alan. Charlotte Parry is consistently brilliant as the slightly brittle but extremely sensitive writer Kay. And Matthew James Thomas perfectly personifies the pampered golden-boy Robin, who squanders his chance on fortune and happiness on alcohol.
The show’s three other roles – equally important – are also well cast, notably the great comic actor Steven Boyer in a devastating dramatic turn as Ernest Beevers, the seemingly unprepossessing fellow who marries Hazel. Cara Ricketts makes a strong impression as Joan, another outsider who marries into the clan but is never fully accepted by Mrs. Conway. And Alfredo Narciso does well with the slightly underwritten part of family friend and solicitor Gerald Thornton.
Admittedly, the cast’s British accents may take some getting used to (especially for older patrons), and the work does take some time to make its mark. Indeed, you may feel for some of the first act that you’ve been asked to evaluate a glittering cubic zirconium, but rest assured, this long-neglected play is a multi-faceted diamond.