‘Time and the Conways’: Visually lush revival ‘thoroughly trapped in 1937’

Roundabout Theatre Company has mounted revivals of popular works by eminent playwrights, including “The Cherry Orchard” by Anton Chekhov, “Long Day’s Journey into Night” by Eugene O’Neil, and “Old Times” by Harold Pinter. This recent trend continued, with a slight twist, on Sept. 10 at the American Airlines Theater with the revival of J. B. Priestley’s “Time and the Conways,” a lesser-known play for American audiences set in Britain in both 1919 and 1937.

A philosophical exploration of linear time, “Conways” centers on the well-off titular family on the same night eighteen years apart, charting the characters’ aspiration and depicting their often unintended fates. Originally produced on Broadway in 1938, this production hails from Rebecca Taichman, who in June won the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play for “Indecent,” and features an ensemble led by Elizabeth McGovern (“Downton Abbey”).

Did the almost 80-year absence of “Time and the Conways” from the Broadway stage make critics’ hearts grow fonder for the play?

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Apparently not. This new mounting of “Time and the Conways” received tepid reviews from critics, although most did set aside their quibbles with the text and production to praise its design elements. Marilyn Stasio (Variety), for one, applauds the performances of McGovern, Gabriel Ebert, and Charlotte Parry as well as the “comfortably decorous” set design by Neil Patel, but notes Taichman’s “erratic directorial style.” Joe Dziemianowicz (New York Daily News) similarly applauds the “first-rate ensemble,” particularly the “assured return” of McGovern to Broadway, the “eloquent and evocative set,” and Taichman’s “sensitive direction,” but contends that the play itself betrays an “annoying habit of overexplaining itself.”

Sara Holdren (Vulture) offers a harsher critique of Priestley’s words, saying, “the text often feels clunky, dated, and more than a bit sentimental,” wishing that they “lived up to the extravagant — and admittedly powerful — visual metaphor that [Neil] Patel and Taichman have created.” Although she applauds McGovern’s “affecting performance,” as well as the turns from Steven Boyer and Brooke Bloom, Holdren ultimately cautions that Taichman “overplays the first act’s saccharine notes,” and that the production overall seems “pretty thoroughly trapped in 1937.” Jesse Green (New York Times) also finds fault in the production’s unevenness, arguing that while some of the show “comes off as obvious exercises in dramatic irony,” complete with the “stiffness of the actual scenes” and “canned dialogue and bald exposition,” other parts “are freshly gripping.”

Although this production did not receive particularly warm notices from critics, “Time and the Conways” could contend at the 2018 Tony Awards, due in large part to its estimable cast and creative team. Fresh off of her first Tony win last season for directing “Indecent,” Taichman could find herself back in the race to defend her title. From the design team, Taichman’s Tony-winning “Indecent” collaborator, lighting designer Christopher Akerlind (“The Light in the Piazza”) could receive his eighth career nomination, Tony-winning costume designer Paloma Young (“Peter and the Starcatcher”) could earn a second consecutive nomination to follow up her bid at the last Tonys for “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” and scenic designer Neil Patel might earn his career-first Tony bid. Of the cast members, McGovern and Tony-winner Gabriel Ebert (“Matilda the Musical”) seem like the two most likely performers to stand out to the Tony nomination committee.

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Despite this pedigree of the on- and off-stage team, “Time and the Conways” may be hindered at the Tony Awards not only by its reviews, but also by the production’s early-season debut. Currently slated to run through Nov. 26 only, “Time and the Conways” may be long forgotten by the Tony nominating committee by Spring 2018. A similar fate befell Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of “The Cherry Orchard” last season; although that production received far more negative reviews than “Conways,” it also boasted a few exemplary names that failed to receive recognition come awards season.