“Time and the Conways”

“Downton Abbey”’s Elizabeth McGovern turns back the clock in a touching family drama.

Elizabeth McGovern, Matthew James Thomas, Cara Ricketts and Anna Camp; Photo by Jeremy Daniel

There are 10 characters in J.B. Priestley’s delicately mysterious Time and the Conways. Seven of them are members of the Conway clan, which includes six children and their rather glamorous mother, played to twinkly, purring perfection by Elizabeth McGovern. Three other people marry into that English family or stay in its orbit. But there’s an 11th, unseen figure treading the boards, the one identified in the title: Time. Inexorable, unappeasable Time. Priestley’s melancholy but hopeful meditation on change glows handsomely in this well-acted and craftily designed revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company.

Elizabeth McGovern, Brooke Bloom, and Charlotte Parry / Photo by Jeremy Daniel

While we can’t see Time, director Rebecca Taichman and set designer Neil Patel manifest the force evocatively in the transition between the first and second acts. I don’t want to spoil the coup de théâtre, but we leap from buoyant postwar 1919 to disillusioned and desperate 1937, and the physical environment morphs dramatically. Note the color tactic that Patel and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind opt for in the later period: lots of emotionally frosty blues and grays.

This metaphysical domestic drama hasn’t been on Broadway since a monthlong run at the Ritz Theatre (now the Walter Kerr) in 1938, and it’s less familiar to New Yorkers than An Inspector Calls—the Priestley classic brilliantly revived in England by Stephen Daldry and transferred here in 1994. Those who remember Inspector will see the British playwright and novelist grappling with similar themes of fate and human will, playing with chronology to underscore the unintended ripples of individual choices.

In Time and the Conways, Priestley charts the social and psychological derailments of the Conway children: independent and literary-minded Kay (Charlotte Parry), shy and recessive Alan (Gabriel Ebert), handsome self-starter Robin (Matthew James Thomas), prettily vain Hazel (Anna Camp), socialist firebrand Madge (Brooke Bloom), and dreamy and compassionate youngest daughter Carol (Anna Baryshnikov). Each one fails to get what he or she wants in various ways over the span of the story—only possibly what each deserves. Mrs. Conway reveals herself as a deeply flawed parent, a frustrated singer whose favoritism toward Robin and unwillingness to face money realities dooms the family, materially and otherwise.

time and the conways
Gabriel Ebert, Anna Baryshnikov, Anna Camp, Elizabeth McGovern, and Matthew James Thomas / Photo by Jeremy Daniel

The piece may strike some viewers as old-fashioned in its tweedy, melancholy Britishness, but there’s a core of cosmic wonder and plucky humanism to the affair. Toward the end of the second act, Alan comforts the depressed Kay: “At this moment, or any moment, we’re only a cross-section of our real selves,” Alan muses. “What we really are is the whole stretch of ourselves, all our time, and when we come to the end of this life, all those selves, all our time, will be us—the real you, the real me.” Priestley may be preachy here, but Ebert delivers the holistic message with a tender conviction worth cherishing in our scary, senseless present.

Taichman doesn’t try to outsmart the material, handling it with the intelligence and clarity it deserves. And while her ensemble is not without a couple of shrill voices and plastic accents, it’s a talented, appealing group on the whole. Bloom is radiantly and pathetically zealous as Madge, and no one lurks quite as expressively as the gangly, slow-burning Ebert. Parry’s Kay, who has spooky intimations of her family’s future woes, is the right balance of acid and sugar. And after six seasons showing how to raise pampered progeny with fairness and love on Downton Abbey, McGovern luxuriates visibly as a narcissistic widow who competes childishly when she should be nurturing.

time and the conways
Matthew James Thomas, Gabriel Ebert, Steven Boyer, and Charlotte Parry / Photo by Jeremy Daniel

There must be a special shout-out to Steven Boyer (shockingly good in 2015’s Hand to God), who nearly steals the show as Earnest Beevers. The awkward young entrepreneur from the north bluntly woos—and eventually wins—the hand of an initially repulsed Hazel. Eyes flashing fire as he registers every slight and taunt from the family he aches to join, Boyer delivers a superb portrait in upwardly mobile class resentment. The character basically functions as an anti-Lopakhin (and there are other affinities with The Cherry Orchard), refusing to help the Conways out of their financial crisis. In the 19 years between the first act and the second, Earnest has clearly been efficient in amassing wealth, no matter how miserable he makes Hazel or how it twists him into a petty tyrant. Bloody-minded and remorseless, he wastes no time but, to borrow from Shakespeare, it will surely waste him.

Time and the Conways
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street (between Seventh and Eighth Avenues), Times Square
Through Sunday, November 26

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