The Roundabout Theatre Company has done a service by reviving J. B. Priestley’s thoughtful play “Time and the Conways” in a lively production with an especially impressive performance by Elizabeth McGovern, best known for her role in “Downton Abbey.” The play, set in Britain, premiered in London in 1937 and then was staged on Broadway in 1938.
Priestley was digging into the problems involving class in England between World Wars I and II by focusing on the well-off Conway family and its downfall, with dialogue that also reflected attitudes toward socialism and strikes. His method was to set two time frames, first in 1919 and then in 1937. An ingenious aspect was, after showing the misfortunes in the later date, to flip back in time to again highlight the earlier coziness and aspirations, thereby emphasizing how all went awry.
McGovern has dynamic scenes in the role of the dominating Mrs. Conway, a sometimes flirtatious widow who rules the roost over her four daughters and two sons, each offspring with a very different personality. Early on we get a portrait of what it is like in this upscale environment, with a party in which guests are invited to play charades, and we are clued into the hopes that abound in the wake of the first World War. All seems to be wide open for the future.
When another set descends (the appropriate designs are by Neil Patel) to take us to 1937, we are in for a shock. Life has drastically changed, the Conways are in dire need of money, one daughter has died, and recriminations and regrets abound. Mrs. Conway is trying to keep things together, but rises to the occasion with one angry outburst telling off Ernest Beevers, perfectly portrayed by Steven Boyer, who refuses to lend the Conways money even though he announces that he can well afford it. Having married into the family, he still seethes with resentment over how he has felt looked down upon as an unworthy interloper. McGovern makes the most of a speech in which she reveals how she has always felt about him. It is a major dramatic moment for her.
The entire cast is exceedingly good, including Anna Camp, Anna Baryshnikov, Brooke Bloom and Charlotte Parry as the daughters, and Gabriel Ebert and Matthew James Thomas as the sons, with other roles well-handled by Cara Ricketts and Alfredo Narciso.
The production also indulges in some less effective devices, such as the daughter who died appearing behind a scrim to remind us of haunting memories and an example of what might have been. Another daughter has premonitions of doom. This cuts uncomfortably into the realism that defines the rest of the play. However, those excursions are not enough to derail the overall effectiveness of the author’s incisive look into the situation in England during the era under inspection via his examination of one family’s trajectory.
It is a welcome example of Priestley’s writing, and director Rebecca Teichman has done a sharp job of staging that results in an impressive Roundabout production of a play that merits a revival in our time. At the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street. Reviewed October 15, 2017. Phone: 212-719-1300.