NEW YORK — J.B. Priestley’s “Time and the Conways” is not one of his best plays, but it is being given an acceptable, and often entertaining, revival at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre on West 42nd Street.
“Time and the Conways” is one of Mr. Priestley’s time-centered plays. In the late 1930s, Mr. Priestley had become preoccupied with the book An Experiment With Time by British philosopher J.W. Donner.
Mr. Priestley felt inspired by Mr. Donner's idea, and wrote several plays about “time and space.” The best was “An Inspector Calls,” which in 1994 was given a brilliant new interpretation by the English director Stephen Daltry. In 1942, Thornton Wilder borrowed the time concept and integrated it into his “The Skin of Our Teeth,” having his Antrobus family travel through several periods like the Ice Age and The Great Flood.
The first act of “Time and the Conways’” takes place in 1919, right after the end of World War I, in the Yorkshire manufacturing town of Newlingham, England. Kay Conway, a budding novelist, is celebrating her 21st birthday and we can hear the festivities, the explosion of firecrackers and the popular tunes of the time played on a piano across the hall. Kay is in another drawing room with her three sisters, getting costumes ready for a birthday charade of skits.
The lives of all the young Conways seem to be in transition. Carol (Anna Baryshnikov) wants to be an actress, Hazel (Anna Camp) is looking for a rich husband and Madge (Brooke Bloom) has her eye on academia. They are joined by brother Alan (Gabriel Ebert), who seems to be less ambitious, happily clerking at the town’s rate office. Soon to arrive is the family’s other brother, the dashing 23-year-old Robin (Matthew James Thomas) in an R.A.F. uniform, finally home after completing his national service.
The patriarch of the family accidentally drowned several years ago, leaving the family under Mrs. Conway’s rule. She is played by Elizabeth McGovern, the American actress who has gained fame in England playing Cora Crawley on the popular television series “Downton Abbey” which ended last year. Ms. McGovern gives Mrs. Conway an egocentric manner within her family and her large household.
Other party characters are Joan Helford (Cara Ricketts) who is in love with Robin, and Mrs. Conway’s solicitor, Gerald Thornton (Alfredo Narciso), who has introduced new client Ernest Beevers (Steven Boyer), an enterprising young man anxious to get to know the Conways. Beevers is especially taken by Hazel. She looks down on Ernest and his out-of-town ordinariness. When he exits, she calls him “beastly” and “a little man like a ferret.”
After the charade, Mrs. Conway, an amateur opera singer, sings Schumann’s “De Nussbaum” as a birthday gift to Kay. The act ends with life seeming for the Conways to be on a promising track as the outside world is still trying to repair itself from a shattering wartime.
The second act goes forward to 1937 with World War II revving up in the wings. Neil Patel’s new set floats down from the rafters onto the stage. It’s the same drawing room but in a paler version. No longer sunny yellow, it now is more somber with Christopher Akerlind's lighting’s emphasizing its blues. Once again, it’s Kay’s birthday. She is edging close to age 40, and has traveled up from London where she lives. She is not a novelist, but rather a journalist instead, writing profiles of movie stars for the Daily Courier.
As the other Conways drift in, we see what a couple of decades have done to them. Joan has married Robin and has two children, yet the couple is now separated and he’s living in Leicester. Madge is up to be the head of a local girl’s school. She seems neurotic and has no interest in the family woes. Mrs. Conway appears as her gallant self, though she is having serious money problems; her stock shares have fallen and her two homes are worth nothing. She also has been supporting her favorite wayward child, Robin.
Hazel has married the “little man” Ernest, who has become wealthy. He still resents the way the family, and especially Mrs. Conway, treated him, back in his early days in town. Though he could easily help her out, he says he will not give her a cent. Then he and Hazel leave.
Slowly, the rest of the Conways move to other rooms, leaving only Kay and Alan. Alan is still a solemn and dull old bird and Kay is still the patient sister, now with an hour to bond with her brother before her train will take her back to London. Alan, in one sentence, sums up the thesis of Mr. Priestley's play: There is one great devil in the universe and we call it time. Then he quotes a line from the 18th-century visionary poet William Blake: “Man was made for joy and woe/ Then when this we rightly know/Through the world we safely go.”
“Time and the Conways” should end there, but Mr. Priestley adds a third act. Now at Kay's 1919 birthday party, it shows how the seeds of the future were present in the early lives of the Conways. It takes away the play's dramatic sting, is often repetitious, and distorts some of his characters' subtlety.
Director Rebecca Taichman gets most of the world of Priestley on stage with a smart, genteel touch. Even though it is not a completely satisfying play, in its own way it becomes a memento of an English family from another era dealing with life 80 years ago.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.