Only the incarcerated disagree.
But all other adults will tell you that time goes fast.
A fall from grace can go even faster.
That’s what we see in TIME AND THE CONWAYS, J.B. Priestley’s 1937 play that is set in that year — for the second act, at least. Acts One and Three take place in 1919, when we first meet the family before we’re interrupted by the future and see what has happened to them.
Are your eyes now half-closed and your brain telling you “Why should I pay Broadway prices to see a plot where I can predict the ending? Obviously by 1937 the hopes and dreams of 1919 have long faded or have been betrayed.”
Although that is true, you’ll find that Priestley gives so many fascinating details that wouldn’t have occurred to you. As a result, you may well be riveted and emotionally moved by what you see in recent Tony-winner Rebecca Taichman’s splendid production.
Here’s rooting for the Tony and Drama Desk committees to give an Ensemble Award that honors all ten performers. The established star (Elizabeth McGovern), the new generation of Broadway reliables (Steven Boyer, Anna Camp, Gabriel Ebert, Alfredo Narciso, Charlotte Parry, Matthew James Thomas) and the newcomers (Anna Baryshnikov, Brooke Bloom, Cara Ricketts) all make solid impressions. So do Paloma Young’s period-perfect costumes and Neil Patel’s set, which almost makes the second act seem like a dream (or should we say nightmare?)
Nineteen-nineteen is a time of Big Families, so the widowed but well-off Mrs. Conway (McGovern) has four daughters and two sons. At the beginning, the talk of parties and costumes for Kay’s birthday is of utmost importance. Although Carol (Baryshnikov) acknowledges that bad things can happen in life, Hazel (Camp) blithely responds “I’m not listening.”
On the other hand, Madge (Bloom) is concerned about those English citizens who are living below the poverty line. When Kay (Parry) tries to start some serious conversation (“This mad amusement that has gone on after the war has gone on long enough”), her mother changes the subject. Kay does get her sisters’ attention when she wanly tells them “You only talk about clothes, going to London and getting married.”
As for Alan (Ebert), he has no ambition, but Robin (Thomas), home from the recent war, exclaims “I’ve got all sorts of plans!” Yeah, those and a sixpence will get you a ride on the underground. Neighbor Joan (Ricketts) has a plan, too — to rope Robin into marriage.
You know Britain and its class distinctions, so you can well imagine how the Conways feel when the lesser-born Ernest (Boyer) comes to the party. Hazel and Joan are especially derisive; one of them will come to see him differently.
Right then, though, they’re fiddling as their lives are about to burn. One character’s exuberance when exclaiming “I’m going to live!” doesn’t turn out to be that accurate.
Act Two takes place precisely 19 years later, which means that it’s again Kay’s birthday. This time, though, few remembered and fewer care; they can’t afford to. Mrs. Conway, who now rather resembles The Madwoman of Chaillot, does give Kay her heirloom brooch as a present. She tries to make the gesture both grand and sentimental; we suspect it has more to do with her not having the money to buy something.
Robin, once the golden boy, is now tarnished. Given how disheveled he looks upon his arrival, we see that his Act One clothes did NOT make the man. We’re not surprised to see him make a beeline for the liquor table to pour himself a drink. Priestley cleverly has him offer one to everyone in hopes that many, some or anyone will take him up on it; that way, he won’t seem to be a lush who drinks alone but is just one of revelers enjoying the party. No one says “Yes, thank you,” but Robin decides to “have one anyway” and says so in a blithely matter-of-fact voice to make it seem as if he has one only every now and then.
What he does with a flower tells us so much about him, too.
Later Mrs. Conway pours a drink for Ernest. Is she a good hostess or is she just buttering up the now-wealthy businessman? Whatever the case, Ernest accepts the glass but doesn’t drink. He wants to keep his head clear, for he’ll have a lot to say.
Where’s the idealism and social consciousness that Madge had in the first and third acts? Gone, as it would be with so many hippies of the ‘60s. She has her chance with their solicitor Gerald (Narciso), but in a poignant scene, we and she see he’s not the man for her. If he doesn’t quite break her heart, he punctures it with a hole that will never be filled.
Another character says “I couldn’t possibly spend the rest of my life here. I’d die.” She’ll find what Charlotte in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC has learned: “Every Day a Little Death.”
On the surface, time has made obsolete some of what the play professes. Mrs. Conway says to Hazel “Your job is to find a very nice man and marry him.” There’s the belief that men should routinely be given bigger salaries because they have families to support. Joan wishes she had a man’s opportunity to Make Something of Herself. Today, of course, she could, but Priestley has given us a type of time machine that lets us see what people were thinking and believing back then.
Perhaps Alan would have done better if he’d had a wife pushing him. Or would he have been worse off for that precise reason. Priestley makes him his mouthpiece on a theory about time that he’d learned from philosopher John William Dunne. Perhaps the playwright also got a few ideas from Chekhov’s THE THREE SISTERS, which also shows what can happen over time – and what doesn’t.
Robin, like Andre, believes he’s headed for great things but becomes dissolute, too. And just as Natasha early on defends her belt by saying that it isn’t the vulgar color that Olga says it is, Ernest in the first act finally feels confident enough to speak right up and rebut the others’ opinions on money. This unexpected flurry after his considerable uncomfortable silences convinces us that he knows what he’s talking about and has more backbone than the others infer.
Through the years, those two fishes-out-of-water eventually sail to positions of authority. Ernest seems on a trajectory much like the one Mr. Snow takes in CAROUSEL – only Priestley takes him further and makes him as much of a mini-monster as Natasha. In both plays, the other characters let it happen, be it from ignorance, apathy, laziness or cluelessness. Robin regards Ernest as a “little pipsqueak,” but people are ultimately judged by what they’ve achieved rather than by their height. Now Ernest doesn’t seem so short when he stands on his money.
At first glance, TIME AND THE CONWAYS can be summed up in Fred Ebb’s very knowing lyric for CABARET: “And you learn how to settle for what you get.” Except that some of the Conways – and the rest of us — are still finding that a hard lesson to learn and learn from.