‘Downton Abbey’ Just Landed on Broadway, Kind of: ‘Time and The Conways,’ ‘Measure For Measure,’ and ‘The Home Place’
The Daily Beast
October 11, 2017
We first meet the Conway family in 1919. As Time and the Conways opens, the First World War has ended, and it is daughter Kay’s (Charlotte Parry) 21st birthday. The mood is light and upbeat, and the tinkling voices and gossip of unseen guests bubble flutily enough to indicate a light British drawing room comedy.
This conceit is further underscored by the audience-grabbing casting of Elizabeth McGovern (Cora, from Downton Abbey) as another materfamilias, Mrs. Conway, as she comes into the drawing room to chivvy her children along.
But where the purring and American Cora was nurturing and understanding, the British and more tightly coiled Mrs. Conway is altogether less predictable. She is both the perfect host and the perfect nightmare parent.
We are told that the family are middle class, although their accents suggest the upper of upper crust, one of many jarring tonal errors that make watching this Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway production puzzling.
Admittedly, J.B. Priestley’s play is intended as something of a deep-and-meaningful mystery; it is as much a dark meditation of time as it is family saga. Its more allusive edge is signaled by its second act taking place 18 years later in 1937, with the family, while still intact, riven by fractiousness, thwarted ambitions, bad marriages, and general sadness.
Just as in Downton Abbey, property and money emerge in Time and the Conways as the assassins of good fortune and already frayed family bonds. Unlike Downton, there is no Carson on hand with a letter to save the day.
The third act shifts us back to 1919 again to see where the seeds of this unhappiness were sown.
Tony-winning director Rebecca Taichman, who in Indecent also oversaw leaps in time, here cannot weave such inventive flights of magic, although she tries on a much more limiting stage. When we move between decades, one of the most beautiful shifts in Neil Patel’s design is executed, as the new version of the old family drawing room supplants the older which is now further back in the stage, and populated by the figure of daughter Carol (Anna Baryshnikov), who has died. This emphasizes Priestley’s theme of the layering effects of time.
But what the play cannot marry the grand theme of time with the quotidian stuff of plot and family. Mrs. Conway’s airiness soon gives way to biting criticism of her daughter Madge (Brooke Bloom), who goes from idealistic socialist to simply bitter outsider. The effervescent Hazel (Anna Camp) is considerably less effervescent after she gets involved with the ghastly Ernest (Steven Boyer), who tellingly is both working class and the villain of the piece, imagined by Priestley as wheedling his way into the family for his own ends.
While Hazel’s friend Joan (Cara Ricketts) lusts for returning soldier Robin (Matthew James Thomas), she is adored by Alan (Gabriel Ebert), who lets every insult, rejection, and slight wash over him. Robin is a bumptious fool, but oddly neutered. He should be the man of the house, but prefers to remain the mischievous boy.
Two key things are not made clear to the audience: a supposedly terrible thing that Mrs. Conway did to change things forever, and whatever terrible thing Kay (who becomes a journalist) is feeling and whatever it is based on in both 1919 and 1937.
She seems, we are led to guess, to prophecy the family’s most obvious disaster, so maybe it is just that. But it is so oddly scripted and performed, you wonder, as someone else says, whether she has maybe had a little too much to drink.
As for the terrible thing that Mrs. Conway may or may not have done, well sure, she’s a caustic nightmare for her children—over-critical, over-indulgent, playing them off against one another—but the depth of her viciousness never seems extreme enough to merit the dark words set against her.
Yes, also implicitly embedded here are a country recovering from war, and what happens next for it and its people. Madge, for example, lauds the possibility of a future socialist utopia, singing the rousing song “Jerusalem,” the Sir Hubert Parry hymn adapted from William Blake’s poem, “And did those feet in ancient time.”
Priestley was also supposedly influenced by J.W. Dunne’s theory of serial time, with the past, present, and future essentially collapsed into one another. One of the most impressive things in the play is the ageing process of the actors, aided by the mastery of Leah J. Loukas’ hair and wig design and Paloma Young’s costumes.
Alan, whom Ebert plays with a delightful, careworn simplicity, seems to grasp this theory of time innately. It has clearly kept him sane in his strange family for many years, and he tries to impart the knowledge to the more desperate and falling-apart Kay, in the hopes it will help her. But, for whatever reason best known to Priestley if not us, she is beyond saving.
There is a disconnect between the big themes of Time and the Conways and its smaller-framed domestic sagas. It’s hard to like or care about the characters, who exist in two fundamentally off-putting registers: When they are up, they are rah-rah party kittens playing charades, and when they are down they are grizzly and miserable. We don’t know what has happened to them, beyond a few blunt specifics like Ernest’s abusiveness.
It is hard what to deduce of Mrs. Conway’s bizarrely inconsistent moods, or Kay’s portents of doom, when both characters are given scant depth. This is an oddly airless play, and it feels even more lost in a large Broadway theater.
Measure For Measure
The Elevator Repair Service is a brilliant experimental theatre company, famous for recasting classic texts anew, as with Gatz, their epic adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Their Measure For Measure, at the Public Theater, again begins in an office, or newsroom, with lots of phones and people sitting. They are wearing 1930s/’40s clothing, and other shiny odd things that belong 30 years later. What then follows will largely be governed by what you know of Measure For Measure, and what you do not.
Shakespeare’s story isn’t totally lost. Isabella (Rinne Groff) is still left to plead for the life of her imprisoned brother Claudio (Greig Sargeant) to judge Angelo (Pete Simpson). Simpson has the most fun of anyone on stage; his insane gait, sudden leaps and falls, and agonized scrunches of the body bring to mind an especially bonkers John Cleese as Basil Fawlty.
As well as an exercise in animating the original text, this production, directed with typical imaginative invention by John Collins, is an exercise in what text is, and how it should be performed, which becomes visible when words are screened from a projector over the walls and ceiling of the stage design. As the speed at which they are said, the tone they are said in, and what is being said, changes, we are left thinking: “What are these things called words, and how should we say them?”
As the Duke (Scott Shepherd) weaves all manner of plot and counter-plot, and the play ends cleverly in total chaos as loose ends are hastily woven together. The company look askance and exhausted—Shakespeare has merrily done them in, and us too. Friendly recommendation: If you don’t know the play, a cursory read before you go will help.
The Home Place
An off-Broadway jewel: The Irish Repertory Theatre has mounted a modest and almost-excellent adaptation of Brian Friel’s The Home Place directed by Charlotte Moore. Set in Ballybeg, County Donegal in 1878, we are in the home of Christopher Gore (John Windsor-Cunningham), a Brit who means well but whose ownership of the land and sense of benign colonial entitlement is about to be challenged.
His openly racist and awful cousin, a so-called anthropologist called Richard (Christopher Randolph, brilliantly toxic), has come to measure the locals’ heads and arms to gather evidence for his spurious beliefs of racial superiority. Local rebel Con Doherty (Johnny Hopkins), a symbolic figurehead of the Home rule movement, doesn’t take kindly to that.
The play is a distillation of a changing Ireland, where the locals are not just going to look winsome and pay their rent. And in the “lodge” itself there is another romantic triangle, featuring Christopher, his son David (Ed Malone) and housekeeper Margaret (Rachel Pickup), which can only end in a broken heart, or three.
When emotions run high, the shouty and overly declarative acting can overwhelm the small stage. But, affecting and stirring, this adaptation–much more than Time and the Conways–carries the personal and political ghosts of times past resonantly in its sails.