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Theatre in Review: Time and the Conways (Roundabout Theatre Company/American Airlines Theatre)

The Conway family lives in a haunted house with a difference: It is filled not with shades of the past but those of the baleful future. J. B. Priestley's 1937 drama employs an unusual time scheme, introducing the fond, foolish Conways at a high point in their collective fortunes before jumping ahead two decades to show how brittle and unrealistic their dreams have proved to be. Then he returns to that happy evening certain that we will see them in a new and unflattering light.

It's a strategy that works as far as it goes -- and yet the Conways don't prove to be entirely worthy of our initial interest. The play begins at a family birthday party one evening in 1919, when, after several difficult years, everyone's hopes are high. World War I is over, ushering in a dream of perpetual peace. (Madge, a member of the family's younger generation, is sure that the League of Nations will be a safeguard against conflict. She also believes that the Labour Party will usher in a golden era of socialism.) Alan, the elder son, is back from military service, and Robin, his younger brother, will be demobbed any day now. (Before the first act is over, he will appear, to the delight of all.) True, the family's patriarch is dead, the victim of a freak swimming accident a few years before, but everyone has emerged from their collective grief, and why not? There is everything to live for, isn't there?

The adult Conway children -- indeed, virtually everyone at the party -- are moths to the flame of Mrs. Conway. Priestley never gives her a first name, which, perhaps, signals that she is an unfinished woman: She's attractive, frivolous, and thoroughly self-centered, the kind of charming creature who floats into a room and, without leaving her fingerprints, rearranges everyone to her satisfaction. (Lest you think that Elizabeth McGovern is cashing in on her fame as Lady Cora Grantham, of Downton Abbey, rest assured that Mrs. Conway is the exact opposite of that august lady. See how easily she separates one of her daughters from the family lawyer; he is her personal property, thank you very much.) Monsters are rarely this delightful.

With little or nothing behind a veneer of charm, Mrs. Conway has failed to provide her children with the inner resources needed to face life's adversities. And, already, little intimations of future troubles are there to be seen: Alan has settled for a position as a municipal clerk, a job that is clearly beneath his abilities. Kay, the birthday girl, is an aspiring novelist; already she is struggling mightily with her muse, producing works that, upon completion, she consigns to the trash can. Still, high spirits reign: As everyone comes and goes, taking part in a fancy-dress version of charades and idly plotting their futures, one comes to suspect that the Conways live in an iridescent bubble that is all but certain to burst.

As we are hurtled into 1937, Neil Patel's set, an immaculate Georgian sitting room, executes a remarkable effect: The room recedes upstage, to be replaced by the image of it, stenciled on a scrim. We can see the original set through the transparent walls; throughout the next scene, it will be occupied by the ghost of a Conway who dies young. As for the others, they might as well be dead, for all the satisfaction life has brought them. Their careers are stifling, their marriages locked in stalemate. Some of them are barely getting by financially, and their prospects are unlikely to improve, as Mrs. Conway has managed to burn through their considerable fiscal reserves. (One of the Conways, confounded, notes that Mrs. Conway had once been offered a king's ransom for her home. "Yes," he is told, "but this isn't just after the war. It's just before the next war." What a frisson that line must have caused in 1937.)

Priestley's premise is an intriguing one, but Time and the Conways never escapes a certain dullness for the simple reason that few of his people come alive. The first act deploys a veritable army of ingenues, and telling them apart isn't terribly easy. Even the standouts, like Kay and Madge, are little more than single character traits in frocks. The lengthy stretch of exposition focuses less on their unique personalities than on making clear their collectively blinkered view of life. At least one of the marriages depicted in 1937 is glaringly unbelievable; Priestley can supply no reason for this couple to have gotten together. And the absence of a shred of hope in the 1937 scenes reveals the playwright's grimly deterministic grand design. Fate is capricious, handing out good fortune where it will; is there not one Conway for whom contentment is in reach?

The director, Rebecca Taichman, has handled these dramatic goods sensitively and with enormous skill; if she can't make this play work, one wonders if anyone could. Her cast is beyond reproach. Aside from McGovern, whose Mrs. Conway is as vain, selfish, and maddeningly likable as any Chekhov heroine -- when she at long last turns on her offspring, she is terrible to behold -- there are fine contributions from Steven Boyer as Ernest, a working-class striver who marries into the clan and comes to despise them; Anna Camp as Hazel, the flibbertigibbet who becomes his wife and lives to regret it; Charlotte Parry as Kay, who ends up a hack reporter, forever racing to Southampton to interview another Hollywood starlet; Brooke Bloom as Madge, made prematurely old and cross by a life spent running girls' schools; and Matthew James Thomas as Robin, who permanently loses his way in peacetime, forever running from responsibility. Even better is Gabriel Ebert as Alan, who, stuck in a dead-end job and denied a chance with the one woman for whom he ever felt love, simply fades into the background.

Both of Patel's stunning sets are meticulously and gorgeously lit by Christopher Akerlind. Paloma Young's costumes contrast the brightly colored party outfits of 1919 with the muted colors and tailored silhouettes of 1937. In the 1919 scenes, she also makes telling comparisons between Alan's white tie and tails and what is surely Ernest's only good suit. Matt Hubbs' sound design is most effective when suggesting the sound of a party in progress offstage.

There is a suggestion that the 1937 sequence is a dream of Kay's, and might not necessarily represent the future. Then again, in the final scene, back in 1919, Priestley lays the groundwork for the terrible reality of two decades hence. He gives Alan a speech about the nature of time, which, I think, is meant to provide a certain amount of comfort, but it comes across as too woozy by half. Time and the Conways, even in a production as elegant as this, is a dramatized theory, populated by action figures masquerading as real human beings. Its deep pessimism never really stings. -- David Barbour

(18 October 2017)

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