Sunday, November 12, 2017

Time Dragging at the Roundabout

J.B. Priestly’s An Inspector Calls has tension and mystery, causing anxiety.

J.B. Priestly’s Time and the Conways has not.

The Roundabout’s production of Time and the Conways at the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street is beautifully produced and cleverly staged.  Costuming, furnishing, sound, lights, it has all that.  And perfectly competent, often more than competent, performances by the actors.

What it doesn’t have are interesting characters.  Or, barring interesting, at least likeable characters.  All these people worry about is money they do not earn.  They’re boring.  They’re unpleasant.  Some are downright nasty.  By the end of the play, we wonder if Mrs. Conway’s late husband, who died some time before the play began, deliberately drowned himself to get away from her bad mothering.

Downton Abbey (constantly brought to mind in the production’s advertising because of Elizabeth McGovern’s presence as the matriarch and the television series’ vastly superior depiction of a family with a certain stature in the beginning of the 20th century undergoing a massive change in society in the decades that follow the first world war) worked because we had time to give a damn, to know even the villains, to watch the girls grow up.  In the three scenes of this play, the fine acting shows us a good deal but not enough to make us care. 

At least not me.

What’s most surprising here is that this production is smoothly directed by the splendid Rebecca Taichmann yet it has no life.  It is a set piece of another time, instead of being about time as Priestly apparently intended.  To read about a play and be told the author’s intent is not the same thing as getting it by watching and listening. 

The players and designers of this production gave it their all, so the problem was not with them: 
Elizabeth McGovern, Anna Camp, and Charlotte Parry.  Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
·         Anna Camp is bubbly as Hazel, the pretty one, at least to people like herself.  She is mean to her working class suitor, and predictably marries him so that she fades into a wan imitation of herself19 years later.
·         Anna Baryshnikov is excellent as the sweet Carol, the favorite who died young
·         Gabriel Ebert does fine work as Alan, the eldest son, who appears an unambitious doofus but is surprisingly wise
·         Brooke Bloom is strident and then heartbreaking as Madge the socialist daughter in a sad depiction from youthful hope to the bitter submission of age.
·         Charlotte Parry gracefully plays Kay the young writer who broke free of the family, and, despite her disappointed sadness, at least has dignity
·         Cara Ricketts as family friend Joan, obviously enamored of young Robin.  Like Hazel’s romance, this doesn’t work out too well.  Perhaps Priestley was really writing about sad upper class marriages.
·         Matthew James Thomas smartly played Robin, the pretty son who will quite obviously be a useless bounder.  Perhaps I’ve read/seen too many stories of English society between the wars, but that too was terribly predictable. 
·         Alfredo Narciso did excellent work as Gerald Thornton — the nice young man who’s not family but grows up to be the family solicitor.  He had nice moments of clear silent emotion and repression.
·         Steven Boyer was excellently unpleasant as Ernest Beevers, who creeps into a family gathering in the first scene practically stalking Hazel, returning as her husband in the later time period.  A dislikeable character, Boyer is of the working class, and while we empathize with his position, we wish he could rise above the nasty upper class family he married into.

The production has fine design work, clever and marvelous set design by Neil Patel, and his usual excellent lighting by Christopher Akerlind, and fine costumes by Paloma Young (with hair and wig design by Leah J. Loukas), respectively.

Finally, I must note the fascinating inclusion of “Hands On,” sign interpreters of the play who discreetly but clearly signed the entire performance house left.  

~ Molly Matera, looking for something more pleasing as the Roundabout season continues.

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