Epic Theatre Travels Into Past, Present and Future

Let’s welcome a smart new theater troupe to town-particularly as they’ve made a brilliant debut with their first big production.

Apart from the sparkling talent on display, the pleasure and surprise of the Epic Theatre Center is its successful treatment of J.B. Priestley’s little-known 1937 play Time and the Conways . Good old Jack Priestley, a disrespectful English generation that abandoned him in the 1960′s tends to think. Was portly Priestley, the pipe-smoking Churchillian public figure and common-sense sage of Yorkshire, ever young? John Osborne rudely put him out to pasture by lampooning him in Look Back in Anger , the 1956 play that changed everything-banishing the Priestley plays and the established forces of Noël Coward and Terence Rattigan into unfashionable outer darkness. (Until, that is, they all came back into fashion.)

“What did who say?” Jimmy Porter asks his pal in Look Back in Anger .

“Mr. Priestley,” his pal replies.

“What he always says, I suppose,” Jimmy explains. “He’s like Daddy-still casting well-fed glances back to the Edwardian twilight from his comfortable, disenfranchised wilderness …. “

So Look Back dispatched Priestley into the real wilderness-never to regain the preeminence he enjoyed in 30′s and 40′s England. But the old war-horse, a Fabian socialist, didn’t take it lying down. Priestley addressed a gathering of the new Royal Court writers in the 1960′s. “Angry! I’ll tell you about angry,” he told them, biting on his pipe. “I was angry before you buggers were born!”

That he surely was, for the furies aroused by the British class system weren’t confined to the new generation. Today Priestley is being seen in a new revisionist light, thanks largely to Stephen Daldry’s astonishing neo-Expressionist production a few seasons ago of that old potboiler dressed up as a great moral tract, An Inspector Calls . However, there are those-including its author-who believe it’s a great moral tract dressed up as an old potboiler. Priestley’s “Time Plays,” as they’re called, play metaphysical games of appearances, and Time and the Conways , in all outer aspects a traditional family saga, is the most effective of them.

Like all good theater, you must first find it. The Off Broadway production is staged at Theater 3, on West 43rd Street. Take the elevator to third floor. There you will find a tiny studio theater. Do not panic: All will be well.

The play opens with the Conway family at the end of World War I facing the optimism of a new era (Act I); we see the change in them all when we meet them almost 20 years later, on the eve of World War II (Act II); and then Priestley throws down his ace when he time-jumps back to the opening party scene to give us a spooky new aware-ness of everyone’s fate (Act III). The old-fashioned three-act play used to be the most popular form, incidentally, with West End theater managements until the 1960′s. (Three acts: two intermissions, bigger bar revenues.) But within Priestley’s time-jumping scenes, we can actually glimpse past, present and future simultaneously-an impossibility, you might think.

The “Time Plays” were influenced by the mystic P.D. Ouspensky (Gurdjieff’s disciple), as well as by the mathematician J.W. Dunne of the 1927 An Experiment with Time , which explores the clairvoyancy of dreams. One of the four Conway daughters, Kay (an outstandingly lovely performance by Abigail López in the role Jessica Tandy originally played on Broadway), is thus stunned to fearful, confused tears by her inexplicable premonition of the tragic future. Priestley, the superstitious intellectual, was fascinated by the illusion of time and the power of the supernatural. But look how Priestley, the pragmatic theater craftsman, sets us up playfully with the opening game of innocent charades.

Charades are the mini-metaphor for the play. The 1919 party scene has the carefree Conways and guests playing the game giddily. “We’ve got all the time in the world now,” announces the matriarch, Mrs. Conway. Her teenage child, Carol (played by the excellent Nilaja Sun), dresses up as an old lady, laughing at the illusion of herself as she parades in the old clothes of a long-gone relative. The young character is therefore past, present and future old age simultaneously.

But let’s not dwell too much on Priestley’s metaphysical theories of time. We don’t have the time. The pedant within the playwright was heavy-handed, and besides, the play’s the thing. Time and the Conways is a superior Mornings at Seven , with a touching debt to William Blake, of all people. Only Priestley would dress up a play whose real roots are in Edwardian melodrama with Blakean innocence, and get away with it.

The passionate idealist Madge-another of the Conway sisters, and Priestley’s young socialist out of G.B. Shaw-is in search of the new Jerusalem. It says a lot for Lisa Rothe’s fervent Madge that she can inspire us by reciting a rousing Blakean cliché. (“Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold! / Bring me my chariot of fire!”) The fate of the Conways could have been based on Blake’s proverb, “The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock, but of wisdom, no clock can measure.” And the ineffectual, sweet son, Alan, who’s dismissed by his cruel mother as a “shabby little clerk”-and is played by another fine actor in the troupe, James Wallert-quotes the beautiful lines from Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence.” Perhaps Alan, the only one who never seems to change, sees everything:

Joy and woe are woven fine,

A clothing for the soul divine;

Under every grief and pine

Runs a joy with silken twine .

But for me, the problem with Priestley is that he tends to underline everything. The ironies of how the bright hopes of the Conways turn sour are laid on thick. The youngest one dies tragically young. Her sister, the family beauty, is drained into defeat by her parvenu husband, who becomes a bullying industrialist taking class-conscious revenge on the family. The socialist idealist turns into a prissy schoolteacher heading for embittered spinsterdom; the dreamer and future novelist becomes a hack journalist; the golden boy back from World War I ends up a drunk, and so on. Ideals go wrong . But ideals there are, at least.

When all’s said and done, we are almost always touched and seduced by well-told tales of family life and time passing, and J.B. Priestley, whatever his quite well-known faults, possesses a great storyteller’s craft. The Epic Theatre troupe could scarcely have done a better job with Time and the Conways under Ron Russell’s caring direction. I must also mention that Melissa Friedman, Todd Ceveris, Teri Lamm, Craig Rovere and Tom Butler are excellent actors. There. I believe I’ve named the entire cast, with the exception of Jenny Sterlin’s spoilt and smothering matriarch, who can wither life at a glance-which is about as perfect an interpretation of the role as we could wish for.

Welcome to the world, Epic Theatre. We need you.