Sunday, 12 November 2017

J.B. Priestley's TIME AND THE CONWAYS at the Roundabout

     I saw  revival of this 1937 gem by British novelist, playwright and essayist J.B. Priestley at the National Theatre of Great Britain a few years ago and fell in love with the play. Priestley loved to begin his plays with a familiar genre, then turn everything on its head halfway through. Here we begin with a typical British drawing room drama. The time is 1917, the end of World War I, and one of the Conway daughters, Kay (Charlotte Parry), is celebrating her twenty-first birthday with her mother (Elizabeth McGovern), two sisters and two brothers. There are welcome friends like Joan Helford (Cara Ricketts) and the family lawyer (Alfredo Narcisco), who is smitten with the Conway matriarch and an unwelcome visitor, the ambitious Ernest Beevers (Steven Boyer), a working class man eager to move up in the society of this English town. Not much happens in Act I except introduction of the characters. Mrs. Conway is a charming monster who is brutally frank about the faults of her children and her preference for the youngest son Robin (Matthew James Thomas), who is charming but feckless. At the end of Act I in Rebecca Taichman's brilliant production, the set rolls back and another, less substantial version of the same living room descends from the fly loft. We are now in 1937 and we see what has become of all the characters. The family, now out of money, is anything but harmonious. Hazel (Anna Camp), has married Ernest, who treats her badly. Ernest, now the richest man in town, despises the Conway family who has treated him with snobbish contempt, and will not help them out of their dire financial straits. Robin has deserted his wife and children but still is the apple his mother's eye. Eldest son Alan (Gabriel Ebert),who still lives at home,  is content with his life as a bank clerk. This is what an upper-middle class family has come to during the depression and on the eve of World War II. At the end of the Act, Clare and Alan have a discussion about time--about how we don't live a linear progression from one moment to another. One can experience present and past or even present and future. Deja vu isn't a trick of the brain--it's being two places at once in time. Act III takes us back to 1917 and we see the events that will lead to the family collapse we see in Act II. Clare clearly has a vision of what this future will be as the play ends. Like a seer, she is in limbo between present and future.
     So the play is both a fascinating social satire and a philosophical rumination. It's brilliantly written and always intriguing. Rebecca Taichman, who so ingeniously directed Paula Vogel's INDECENT last year, has captured all of the play's dimensions and supported the actors' rich characterizations. Everyone is.excellent, particularly Gabriel Ebert as the unambitious Alan and Steven Boyer as the working class man on the way up. Ebert and Boyer are two of the best actors currently working today.  It's always exciting to watch them. I have never been impressed with Elizabeth McGovern's rather dull performances on the London stage but she is on fire here as a self-centered, impractical and not particularly loving matriarch, the opposite of her nice matriarch on Downton Abbey. Everyone else is fine, particularly Charlotte Parry as Kay, who grows from a debutante to a cynical woman of the world to a kind of visionary. Credit is due, too, to Neil Patel for his beautiful versions of the Conway drawing room--one realistic, the other more expressionistic.
     This is a fine production of a very special play.

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