Casting Elizabeth McGovern in an England-between-the-wars dramedy would appear to be Broadway ringing the dinner bell for bereft Downton Abbey devotees who are hoping to spend a couple more hours in the company of Lady Cora.
Here, as on that BBC import, the actress plays a woman of means living in Yorkshire just as the Edwardian era slips into history. But the producers behind this first Broadway revival of J.B. Priestley’s 1937 time-shifting family saga should not overlook another potential audience: viewers currently obsessed with NBC’s time-shifting family saga, This Is Us.
Much like that hit show, Time and The Conways invites us to examine a sprawling family’s fortunes and fallings-out through the perspective of years skipping forward and looping back. No accident that “Time” gets first billing in the title — this forgotten gem of a play pushes the boundaries of its well-heeled drawing room setting into a metaphysical dream world, where glimpses of a future we have already witnessed will later haunt characters in their past.
We meet the widowed Mrs. Conway (a completely comfortable and reliable McGovern) and her six grown children in 1919 as they anticipate a brighter future with the end of World War I. The opening moments find the family chirpily playing with the past, in the form of a box of old clothes put to use in a game a charades at the 21st birthday party of Kay Conway (Charlotte Parry), an aspiring novelist. Her brother Robin (Matthew James Thomas) has just returned from war and is optimistic about his career prospects, while their sought-after sister Hazel (Pitch Perfect‘s Anna Camp) is equally so about her prospects for marriage. Another sister, Madge (Brooke Bloom), has visions of socialism winning hearts and minds, while youngest child Carol (Anna Baryshnikov) is exuberant about it all. There are flirtations, and joking at the expense of an outsider, and a lot of the isn’t-it-all-terribly-amusing silliness at which the leisure classes excel. Sighs a contented Kay, “I think life’s wonderful.”
The narrative then leaps from 1919 to 1937 with clever staging: the Conway home as it was — along with one character consigned to the past — literally recedes backwards to make way for a new present. (Kudos to set designer Neil Patel, who knows that we don’t need much more than a wireless radio to signal the new era, and to costume designer Paloma Young for sartorial eye-candy that neatly handles storytelling.)
Nearly two decades down the road, nothing is what any of the Conways has imagined: With another war on the horizon, nest eggs are broken, dreams dashed, love matches burned, idealism crushed by pragmatism. Kay, marking her 40th birthday is particularly tortured by what time has wrought, what she has become and — having left behind her hope of being novelist — what she hasn’t.
She is comforted by her quietest sibling, Alan (Gabriel Ebert, a standout along with Parry), giving voice to playwright Priestley’s theories of time. The ideas are not terribly complicated, but illuminating them fully here would constitute a small spoiler. Suffice to say that, for anyone feeling steamrolled by the years, his words are reassuring even today. As deftly handled by director Rebecca Taichman (a 2017 Tony winner for Indecent), Priestley’s metaphysics are poignant where, in less able hands, they could come off as annoyingly mystical. And while its Downton connection might fill seats, The Conways, despite some superficial period similarities, reveals its own complex pleasures — just give it time. A-