John Boynton Priestley (1894–1984) belonged to that breed of British writers, now slowly dying out, for whom the vocation of writing, rather than the result, was the point. During his lengthy life, he poured out an enormous number of works — novels, plays, essays, memoirs, travel books — on an equally enormous range of subjects. He scored huge successes and failures almost as gigantic, but his rate of success was almost less important to him than the idea of his continuity. He belongs to the industrial era’s tradition of writing as the manufacture of an honorable commodity; the idea of devoting ten years to shaping and polishing a masterpiece would not have occurred to him. Sturdily crafted and guaranteed to wear well, the product is part of a continuing line, with new models appearing regularly.
This mode of solid craftsmanship, a point of honor for which British merchants were celebrated in the age of empire, gives Priestley’s plays their distinctively English flavor. Unlike the more universally accessible sorts of British cultural product, from Dickens to the Beatles, that crossed the ocean with comparative ease, Priestley’s plays have always been received here as imported curios of decidedly limited appeal. With the exception of the psychological thriller Dangerous Corner (1932), no Priestley play had lasted more than a lackluster few months on Broadway until Stephen Daldry’s brilliant expanded version of An Inspector Calls in 1994, which ran for a year. And that production, with its gigantic framing device, was explicitly both a commentary on and a takedown of Priestley’s taut, small-scale moral parable in detective-story form. (The play’s original Broadway production, directed by Cedric Hardwicke and with Thomas Mitchell, Melville Cooper, and Doris Lloyd in the leads, ran a bare twelve weeks in 1947–48.)
Priestley’s 1937 play, Time and the Conways, currently being revived at the Roundabout American Airlines Theatre, met an even colder fate when first produced here the following year, playing a mere 32 performances before it expired, despite a cast headed by Dame Sybil Thorndike and a young Jessica Tandy. Rebecca Taichman’s revival, handsome and effective — and featuring a striking mid-play visual coup that I won’t give away, courtesy of Neil Patel’s ingenious set — reveals both what made the original run so brief and why people might be attracted to the notion of bringing it back. Never incompetent, and skillful enough never to be dull in a conventional way, Priestley simply isn’t a very imaginative creator of characters. Though he takes pains to differentiate his people tidily from one another, they each have a tidily predictable consistency within themselves. They lack the inner life to provide dramatic surprises.
This lack has a particularly troublesome effect on works like Time and the Conways, in which the changes wrought by time on the characters and their circumstances are the dramatic substance. In his metaphysical thrillers, like Dangerous Corner and An Inspector Calls, events supply plot twists that sustain the action by heightening the suspense. In Time and the Conways, however, there is no action as such, just a series of revelations. We see what the characters think they are in 1919, when they’re celebrating the end of “The Great War” and full of hope for the future, and another series about what they realize they’ve become nineteen years later, when most of their hopes are dead and another world war is clearly waiting around the corner.
The nineteen-year time-stretch suggests the extended period over which we watch the characters in Chekhov’s four great plays, and indeed the Russian master’s invisible hand hangs heavily over Priestley’s Conway family, consisting of a widowed mother (Elizabeth McGovern) and her six offspring. Priestley first shows them, at a peak of bourgeois prosperity, having jolly postwar fun at the 21st birthday party of eldest daughter Kay (Charlotte Parry), who dreams of becoming a writer. Hazel (Anna Camp), the family glamour girl, fantasizes about a handsome husband, while serious-minded Madge (Brooke Bloom) has visions of the just and peaceful world to arise from the war’s ashes, and giddy, good-hearted Carol (Anna Baryshnikov) chatters of the excitement of living every day. Just-demobilized Robin (Matthew James Thomas), whom his mother spoils, is busy pursuing his sisters’ best friend, Joan (Cara Ricketts), also adored, albeit more silently, by his stick-in-the-mud younger brother, Alan (Gabriel Ebert). The family lawyer (Alfredo Narciso), who rather dotes on the widow Conway, has brought along a less welcome guest, a determined little parvenu (Steven Boyer) whose name, Ernest Beevers, the Conway girls find particularly ludicrous; he is hopelessly smitten with Hazel.
Priestley’s subsequent scenes jump to 1938 and then back to 1919, showing us where the Conways have landed and flashing back to give more detail on what led them there. Suffice it to say that no one’s plans have worked out very happily, and something quite like financial disaster appears to be approaching along with the cataclysm of World War II. The trouble is that the unhappy results seem all too easily inferable from the first scene. Everybody’s life pans out in the worst possible way; they all mock their own youthful dreams in the same aggrieved tone. Apart from Alan and Kay, who display some sustaining grit, nobody reveals any unforeseen inner resource, and certainly nobody has any unexpected stroke of luck of the kind that rewards Anfisa in Three Sisters or Pischik in The Cherry Orchard. As in An Inspector Calls, Priestley tends less to examine his people than to judge them, assigning punishments or disappointments according to the extent to which he disapproves of their ideals.
In all this, a great deal is left vague, from the death, cryptically alluded to, of Mrs. Conway’s husband, to such matters as real estate values and economic fluctuations in the interwar years. Why can’t Kay get better-paying work? Other vets prospered — why didn’t Robin? That Ernest resents the Conways is no surprise, but that he seems to live solely for revenge on them feels excessive. Like the eerie little premonitory shudders and the later moments when the characters hear echoes from the past, too much of the script seems stagily contrived and mechanical — exactly the sort of thing Chekhov strove mightily to avoid.
Where Priestley shows his skill is in what might be called his social architecture: Each scene, neatly built, fulfills its function; each character, neatly delineated within his or her limits, fits precisely in place in relation to all the others. It’s not so much the people and their actions as the play itself that evokes a vanished way of life. This is not how the English upper-middle-class lived, but how it expected to see itself depicted — and criticized — when it went to a West End matinee. In this regard, Taichman’s production, full of attractive tableaux and striking moments, is only a half-success. The actors, particularly when playing the characters’ younger selves, put up what seems a great struggle to appear authentic; there’s little of the ease with which a company of thirty or forty years ago — even an all-American company — might have inhabited this long-gone world. Especially with the young women, there’s a touch of self-conscious archness about the whole thing, as if they, like the youngsters in the opening scene, were dressing up in old-fashioned costumes (nice ones, by Paloma Young) to play charades. The men do better, especially Boyer, as the dislikable Ernest, and Ebert, who manages to turn Alan’s desire to blend into the walls into an intriguing trait. McGovern, as the family’s attention-craving mum, seems almost too demure; the role appears to require a dollop of Auntie Mame. Ultimately, though, the shortcomings onstage come from Priestley rather than the production. Keeping the piece tidy in an old-fashioned way, he has simply made it too tidy to last. His sensibility, like his characters, is too entrenched in the past to move comfortably into the future.