By J. B. Priestley
Directed by Rebecca Taichman
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“No, Time’s only a kind of dream, Kay. If it wasn’t, it would have to destroy everything—the whole universe—and then remake it again every tenth of a second. But Time doesn’t destroy anything. It merely moves us on—in this life—from one peephole to the next.” – Alan to Kay
Rebecca Taichman’s staging of “Time and the Conways,” currently running at the American Airlines Theatre, is a retelling of the important 1937 play that transforms Priestley’s important discussions about the relevance and the parameters of time, the permanence of war, and the vicissitudes of the nuclear and extended family from an intellectual exercise to a deeply spiritual quest that raises several deep, rich, and enduring questions.
What happens to a nation and its citizens during the time following the War to End All Wars and now on the brink of the war they never expected? What happens to the members of a dysfunctional family over time? Does the pain borne of collusion dissipate or cumulate? Why does time not somehow eradicate the abuse of women and permanently disarm the abuse of women by men? Is time beneficent or inherently maleficent?
These questions – and several others – arise at the twenty-first birthday celebration for Kay Conway (played with a fragility often masked by a delicate bravado by Charlotte Parry) held at the Conway residence in Newlingham, England in 1919 amidst the “rebuilding a shattered world” post-World War I. Though she professes not to be “used to happiness,” Mrs. Conway urges the family, “Let’s all be cosy together and happy again, shall we?” Cosiness and happiness seem to elude the Conways despite the end of the war and the return of Robin Conway (played with a tender mixture of brokenness and irascibility by Matthew James Thomas) from the battlefield. Mrs. Conway’s feeling that “we all can be happy again, now that the horrible war’s all over and people are sensible again” is crushed under the weight of dysfunction and collusion and bruised by disillusionment and disappointment.
The Conway matriarch (played with an admixture of coyness and a deplorable supremacy by Elizabeth McGovern) is an oddly static character: she remains possessive, delusional, and remorseless throughout the play. Time is not kind to Mrs. Conway: her husband and a daughter die and she loses most of her husband’s estate through sheer mismanagement. “Time and the Conways” carefully unmasks how Mrs. Conway’s character dismantles the health and resilience of her family and her own fragility.
When, at her bidding, the family reconvenes in 1937, Robin has abandoned his wife Joan (played with a hopefulness dashed by deep sorrow by Cara Ricketts) and his children; Madge (played with a steely resolve borne through disaffection by Brooke Bloom) disowns her mother; Hazel (played with a spirit broken by abuse by Anna Camp) is married to the “vulgar little bully” Ernest Beevers (played with a deeply deplorable psyche by Steven Boyer) and her friend and lawyer Gerald Thornton (played throughout by a charming tenderness by Alfredo Narcisco) discloses that Mrs. Conway is all but bankrupt. Kay fears there is “a great devil in the universe, and we call it Time.”
Neil Patel’s set supports Rebecca Taichman’s inventive staging of “Time and the Conways” by creating two separate sets for the changes in time (1919 to 1937 and back to 1919) instead of the original convention of changing the furniture and adding a wireless to the 1919 set. With one translucent set in front of the other, the audience “sees” into the past and Alan’s construct of time transcends time. This adds a welcomed magical realism to J. B. Priestley’s already metaphysical themes. Carol Conway (played with the ebullience of adolescence and the wisdom of old age by Anna Baryshnikov) bridges time and space with her presence on stage throughout the two acts. Her performance is chilling.
“Time and the Conways” is a sensitive and courageous exploration of how time (the fourth dimension) teases the fifth dimension and the possibility of alternate universes where, as Alan (played with a remarkable humility and grace by Gabriel Ebert) convinces Kay, “Time’s only a kind of dream, Kay. If it wasn’t, it would have to destroy everything—the whole universe—and then remake it again every tenth of a second. But Time doesn’t destroy anything. It merely moves us on—in this life—from one peephole to the next.”