REVIEW: Time Hop in “Time and the Conways”
“Time and the Conways”, J.B. Priestly’s 1938 “time-hopping drama”, opened last Tuesday at the American Airlines Theatre on Broadway. This gem of a play receives its first New York staging since its premiere in 1938 in a fine production directed by Rebecca Taichman (“Indecent”) for the Roundabout Theatre Company that is sweet and sad, but ultimately operates better in idea than reality.
If the play is known at all, it is remembered for its use of disrupted time, a device in which the playwright places moments, scenes, or acts out of chronological order so as to alter the significance of events for the audience. Priestly was obsessed with theories of time and consciousness, writing six “time plays” that each addressed a different philosophy of time. “Time and the Conways” tackles John William Dunne’s theory of serialism, which, according to Roundabout’s production notes: “postulates that each person’s consciousness exists in multiple dimensions of time simultaneously and, often during sleep, one can access the future and past, thereby unwittingly predicting events to come.”
This three act play is presented in two, all set in the drawing room of the Conways, a well-to-do British family. The first act opens on the tail-end of daughter Kay’s 21st birthday party in 1919. A game of charades provides a “pope in the pool” for the audience to meet all six Conway siblings and their widowed mother, played (though mostly over-played) by Elizabeth McGovern (“Downton Abbey”). These are halcyon days for this handsome family; the war is over, and despite the recent loss of their father, the family brims with promise and talks expositively about their futures. The drawing room set by Neil Patel is realistic and well-appointed; the costumes by Paloma Young richly saturated and colorful.
Following a beautiful and eerie transition to the second act in which a replica of the drawing room set—with translucent walls—is lowered from above and placed in front of the Act I set, we arrive in 1937, the fortunes of the Conways having changed considerably. It is Kay’s birthday again, but one sibling is dead and none are happy or fulfilled in love or work. The family’s money has dried out and the frivolity of charades is replaced by bitter bickering. The final act, following another gorgeous transition, takes us back to that fateful night in 1919, which is now seen in a new, tragic, and heavy-handed light.
This play, which is disarming in its simplicity, could easily be discarded as antique, and yet it is haunting in its juxtaposition of the imagined future with its disappointing reality. Think of it as “Time Hop”, the Facebook feature that resurrects photos and posts from prior years, but from the Interwar period. As often as those reminders summon a whimsical nostalgia they can also serve as a painful aide-mémoire of relationships lost or estranged, hopes unfulfilled, and promise gone asunder. Such is the fate of the Conways as that final act reveals the seeds of their later tragedy.
The production remains better than the text, with the sets and costumes working just as well if not more effectively than the dialogue at conveying the big idea, Dunne’s theory, behind the play. In 1938, that idea was surely riveting. Today, it is merely interesting though still moving. An ensemble of fine actors does their best with average though ambitious material as the idea and structure of the play operate better than their reality. Moments soar, but otherwise, Act I overly is sweet and Act III overly sad, subtlety lacking across the board. Ms. Taichman does her best to sew it all together, but time has been neither favorable to the Conways or “Time and the Conways”.
Bottom Line: This mostly-forgotten play from 1938 receives a well-appointed revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company, disarming in its simplicity but haunting in its juxtaposition of the imagined future with its disappointing reality. But, ultimately, “Time and the Conways” operates better in idea than reality.
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: October 10, 2017
Final Performance: November 26, 2017