“Time and the Conways”

Susan Granger’s review of “Time and the Conways” (Roundabout/American Airlines Theater)

 

Although Elizabeth McGovern spent the last six years playing the gracious American heiress, Lady Cora, Countess of Grantham, on the BBC’s “Downtown Abbey,” she slips artfully into the role of the arrogant, affluent, egocentric widow in J.B. Priestley’s dramedy about wealth, class and the illusion of linear time.

Set in Yorkshire in 1919, the play opens like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, as Mrs. Conway’s ebullient daughters chatter like chirping canaries in affected British accents. It’s Kay’s 21st birthday, which means donning costumes, playing charades and gossiping about the guests assembled in the adjoining room.

There’s aspiring novelist Kay (Charlotte Parry), sweetly optimistic Carol (Anna Baryshnikov), ardent Socialist Madge (Brooke Bloom), and flighty, flirtatious Hazel (Anna Camp), plus underachieving Alan (Gabriel Ebert) and dashing soldier Robin (Matthew James Thomas), home from the Great War.

Then 19 years pass – and it’s 1937.  The disillusioned Conway family faces a difficult dilemma, namely Mrs. Conway’s loss of income. In addition, Carol has died, along with many of their hopes and dreams.

Sensitive Kay is working for a London newspaper, embittered Madge has become a schoolmarm, and embittered Hazel is unhappily married to a social-climbing bully (Steven Boyer). While Alan slyly remains humble, Robin has become a drunken reprobate who cannot support his wife and children.

Then, it’s 1919 again. The Conways’ youthful exuberance is restored, but now the perspective is different, as one can see how the insidious seeds of the Conways’ psychological demise were planted.

Impressively transitioning from the BBC to Broadway, 56 year-old Elizabeth McGovern adroitly moves from being a warm, nurturing mother to a carping matriarch who ruins the lives of all six of her children by projecting her ambitions onto each of them, rather than accepting them for who they are.

Despite the inconsistent direction of Tony Award-winning Rebecca Taichman (“Indecent”), this insightful, time-jumping play has a fine ensemble that includes Alfred Narciso and Cara Ricketts. Credit Neil Patel’s dual sets for achieving continuity, along with Christopher Akerlind’s lighting, Matt Hubbs’ evocative sound and Paloma Young’s idiosyncratic costumes.

FYI: If the name sounds familiar, yes, Anna Baryshnikov is dancer Mikhail’s daughter.

Under the auspices of the Roundabout Theatre Company, “Time and the Conways” is playing a limited engagement through Nov. 26 at the American Airlines Theatre.