Review: Elizabeth McGovern In ‘Time & The Conways’ And A Steeplechase ‘Measure For Measure’

Jeremy Daniel

Two rarities converge with the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Time and the Conways. The J.B. Priestley drama has not been seen in these precincts since its 1938 U.S. premiere and its star, Elizabeth McGovern (Downton Abbey‘s Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham) has been absent from the Broadway stage since 1992, when she played a good Ophelia in a bad Hamlet mounted under this same nonprofit’s auspices.

A wealthy widow presiding over a spoiled brood of four daughters and two sons in northern England, Mrs. Conway (McGovern) is the life of the party – literally so, as the play opens in 1919 during daughter Kay’s twenty-first birthday celebration. The Great War has ended and the future shimmers brightly with the promise of prosperity and peace. Like Chekhov’s Mme. Arkadina, Mrs. Conway demands center stage, sucking all the air out of the room while fawning over her gifted and talented children as they flit around her. Not for nothing is the main event of the party a game of charades in which mother is the star.

Time and the Conways Jeremy Daniel

Kay (Charlotte Parry) aspires to be a serious novelist, much to the mocking delight of her sisters, Hazel (Anna Camp), who intends to marry wealthily, dress well and dine on caviar; Carol (Anna Baryshnikov), who may grow up to be a dancer; and Madge (Brooke Bloom), urged by the Peace to nurse socialist ambitions. Kay is closest to her brother Alan (Gabriel Ebert), who, much to the chagrin of pretty much everyone, is content to be an invisible municipal clerk. Son Robin (Matthew James Thomas) is the golden child, who has returned home a war hero, just in time for the festivities.

We also meet three attendees at the party: Joan (Cara Ricketts), who rejects poor Gerald’s tentative advances and becomes affianced to Robin; Ernest (Steven Boyer), a newly arrived would-be entrepreneur who has set his sights on Hazel, much to her displeasure; and Gerald (Alfredo Narciso), the family solicitor.

The middle act, set in the same day -room of the Conway home, transports us 18 years into the future. All the hopes have turned to despair and the dreams lie in ruin, the shimmering future a mirage: War looms in the near distance. Carol is dead. Kay has become a celebrity journalist in London (to her shame and the family’s delight); Hazel is married to the now wealthy and brutal Ernest, ever resentful of the family’s snobbery; Madge is an embittered girls’ school principal. Robin is an absentee husband and father, lost to drink and pipe dreams. Alan alone seems fulfilled in his destiny of no destiny. And now Gerald must awaken them all to the discomfiting truth that they’ve squandered the family fortune and are deep in debt.

Act III returns us to 1919, later on the night of Kay’s party, where Priestley lays out with subtle, devastating detail, the seeds of what the future holds for the unknowing group. The playwright and novelist had come to believe in a unified theory of time in which past, present and future co-exist on a kind of lateral plane. And so we, having seen the future, are nearly moved to call a warning to each of them, to remove the blinders from their eyes before it’s too late.

Well, we might if Rebecca Taichman’s sadly weightless production evinced any pity or compassion. Coming right off her deserved Tony win for staging Indecent, the director offers a case study of her own theory of time and its consequences: Indecent was the product of several years’ development with the playwright  and a fully integrated company. Time and the Conways, on the other hand, feels stitched together  in a hurry, a costume drama with no coherent point of view and performances so at odds with one another as to screech like chalk on slate.

McGovern is the chief victim of this; her shrill performance lacks the conviction necessary to make this monster mom compelling or even much more than a vague annoyance. She’s not helped by Paloma Young’s otherwise beautiful costumes. Neil Patel’s set has one good trick effect but it’s undermined by an overall flatness thrown into relief by Christopher Akerlind’s (also a Tony winner from Indecent) bland  lighting.

The notable standouts are the sensitive work by Ebert (best recalled as the slithering dad from Matilda), Parry, who’s intensely thrilling as Kay; and Boyer, proving that Hand to God was no fluke for this versatile actor.

I’d like to think the production will age well as the actors grow more comfortable in their roles and unified in performance. They bear a heavy burden, as the memory of the last Priestly show on Broadway was Stephen Daldry’s memorable account of An Inspector Calls. That was in 1994, yet it still shatters in the memory. Time and the Conways should be equally unnerving, but here it’s simply undone.

At the Public Theater, the adventurous Elevator Repair Service, best known for its incantatory, word-perfect renderings of The Great Gatsby (Gatz) and The Sun Also Rises (The Select). With Measure for Measure, the group tackles Shakespeare’s juicy problem play, and the result is a mess that lands primarily as a showcase for the amazing Scott Shepherd. He plays the louche Duke who, recognizing his own part in the moral decay of his beloved Vienna, relinquishes his authority to his upright deputy and vows to disappear while Angelo (Pete Simpson) reasserts law’n’order.

Instead, the Duke returns in monk’s disguise to witness the result. Angelo promptly sentences Claudio (Greig Sergeant) to death for getting his girlfriend pregnant. When Claudio’s almost-a-nun sister Isabella (Rinne Groff) shows up to plead his case, Angelo finally offers a deal: In exchange for a tumble in the hay with Isabella, Claudio will go free .

Measure for Measure Richard Termine

The play is performed in a little over two intermissionless hours, with much of the dialogue spit out at triple speed, sort of like the agate-speak at the ends of TV ads for drugs and cars. At the same time, some, but not all, of the text unscrolls on the walls of the set, which is made up of three long tables on which there are old-fashioned telephones and not much more.

The effect of John Collins’ gimmicky production is breathless, as if to say let’s race through this and just get to the good parts. But the good parts are nearly as incomprehensible (except when Shepherd is commanding a scene). With the language – especially the good parts – spun into a word smoothie, I couldn’t really tell what the point is.

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