About 20 minutes into Time and the Conways, J.B. Priestley’a 1937 play now being revived by the Roundabout Theater Company, I was feeling the way I imagine John Osborne and the “angry young men” of British drama must have felt in the 1950s: Enough of these well-mannered, well-made plays about the rarefied concerns of the British upper classes! In this case, we’re presented with the Conway family (a widowed mother and her six grown children — four daughters and two sons), a birthday party taking place offstage and a lot of flouncing around and nattering about the charahdes game in progress. But Priestley, unsurprisingly, has more up his sleeve. The opening scene takes place in 1919, amid the euphoria that followed the end of World War I. In the next scene, we are thrust forward 19 years, to see how everything has come crashing down —family money squandered, marriages turned sour, hopes and dreams dashed.
That much is fairly predictable. What lifts Time and the Conways into something special is Priestley’s novel idea to return us, in the third act, back to 1919, where we re-view the characters, in their benighted optimism, from the new vantage point of what happened after. This gives the play a poignance — with a metaphysical spin — that I wasn’t expecting. And though the characters’ disillusionment has a touch of cliché —golden-boy war hero turned alcoholic no-account, idealistic writer who sells out for lowbrow magazine work — Priestley presents them with empathy, gravity and unflinching honesty. The new Broadway production, with Rebecca Taichman (Indecent) directing a solid cast headed by Elizabeth McGovern, is one of the better ones I’ve seen at the sometimes plodding Roundabout, and this revival is definitely worth a visit.