“Time and the Conways”: Give It Time

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.

 

Cruising the Hamptons Film Festival

I just finished a busy weekend of filmgoing at the Hamptons International Film Festival. This annual Hamptons ritual — which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year— has always struck me as a bit of a superfluous stop on the film-festival circuit.  It overlaps with the higher-profile New York Film Festival, just a hundred miles to the west, and most of its big films are second helpings from more prominent festivals in Toronto, Cannes and elsewhere. Still, the festival always brings in a lot of interesting little films looking for attention (especially foreign ones and documentaries), draws an enthusiastic crowd of non-cineastes to its packed screenings, and is increasingly regarded by the film studios as a good place to generate buzz for their big fall releases. Nearly all the major Oscar nominees from last year were previewed at the Hamptons festival — including Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea and La La Land. Unfortunately, I missed all three and wasted my time seeing The Human Stain instead.

This year I worked a bit for my press pass, moderating Q&A sessions following three of the film screenings: Spielberg, Susan Lacy’s admirably comprehensive HBO documentary on the director;  China Hustle, a well-crafted doc from Jed Rothstein on how American investors are being bilked by fraudulent Chinese companies; and Marshall, Reginald Hudlin’s earnest, if simplistic, account of one of Thurgood Marshall’s early court cases for the NAACP, defending a Connecticut black man accused of raping the white woman he worked for.

A few quick reactions to some other films I caught in between my moderating duties:  I liked The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s monster-in-love movie, starring Sally Hawkins as a mute janitor in a secret government lab, who falls for an amphibious creature being kept under tank and key. Sort of Creature from the Black Lagoon meets La La Land — nervy, wacky, manipulative, but it worked for me.  I Tonya, British director Craig Gillespie’s rambunctious account of the Tonya Harding story, was a little too tricked-up with tongue-in-cheek, faux-reality-TV touches, but it has some white-trash authenticity, and Margot Robbie skates through quite nicely as Tonya. After seeing Darkest Hour, I’d like to call a halt to movie impersonations of Winston Churchill. Following John Lithgow (The Crown) and Brian Cox (Churchill), Gary Oldman’s turn with the cigar just seems redundant, and the material — Churchill’s first weeks as prime minister, when the Nazi march seemed unstoppable — overly familiar. High marks, however, for The Square, a surprise winner of the Palm d’Or at Cannes, Swedish writer-director Ruben Ostlund’s satiric, episodic, provocative and often poignant film about the director of a contemporary art museum (Claes Bang) and his awkward encounters with the alien world of real life. Some memorable scenes, plus a nifty supporting turn by Elizabeth Moss.

The Fall Season: Six Shows I’m Looking Forward To

Broadway’s fall season doesn’t immediately inspire me. Several of the most high-profile new shows come from people whose work I’ve not been crazy about in the past. But I’m always looking for surprises, and here are six upcoming shows that might provide some:

Meteor Shower (opening Nov. 29): Steve Martin’s new play, first staged last year at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater, is about the sparks that fly when two married couples get together for an evening of stargazing. Despite his renaissance-man talents, Martin’s theater work (Picasso in the Lapin Agile, Bright Star) has been pretty disappointing. But this time he has recruited a don’t-miss cast, including two talented comedians making their Broadway debuts, Amy Schumer  and Keegan-Michael Key, and one Broadway vet who has shown unexpected comedy chops  — Laura Benanti, perpetrator of a dead-on impression of Melania Trump on the Late Show With Stephen Colbert.

Time and the Conways (Oct. 10).  There are, as always, too many revivals on Broadway this season. But it’s nice to encounter an old play that you’re actually looking forward to discovering for the first time. J.B. Priestley (An Inspector Calls) is one of those “old-fashioned” mid-century British playwrights — along with Terrence Rattigan — whose work is having a welcome rediscovery. This 1937 drama follows the travails of a British family over a 19-year span in the years after World War I; Elizabeth McGovern and Gabriel Ebert are among the cast.

The Band’s Visit (Nov. 9): Small seems to be beautiful for Broadway-bound musicals these days (see Dear Evan Hansen). Even so, I was a little surprised when this modest show, based on a 2007 Israeli film about an Egyptian police band that winds up stranded in an Israeli town by mistake, won the New York Drama Critics Circle award for best musical almost by acclamation. I found the show (which debuted off-Broadway last December) pleasant but perhaps a bit too modest. Still, I’m curious to see if it blossoms on Broadway, with most of its original cast (headed by Tony Shalhoub) returning.

M. Butterfly (Oct. 26). I happened to be sitting next to director Julie Taymor at a movie screening a few months ago. When I asked what she was working on, she was excited to tell me about her Broadway reimagining of David Henry Hwang’s 1988 play inspired by Madame Butterfly.  Despite some recent misfires, when Julie Taymor (The Lion King) gets excited, we all should be.

Junk (Nov. 2). Ayad Aykhar has won critical raves for his plays (Disgraced, The Who and the What) that explore the cultural tensions facing Muslim-Americans in this country. As sharp as he is as a social-cultural observer. his plays have struck me as rather contrived and didactic. But I’m eager to see him branch out into fresh territory in this new play, about a junk-bond king plotting a corporate takeover in the go-go 1980s.

SpongeBob SquarePants (Dec. 4). Even at a time when Broadway seems laser-focused on the family audience (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is still running), this new musical based on the popular cartoon show seems like a stretch. But with estimable director Tina Landau at the helm and an array a songs by composers like David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper and Sara Bareilles, the show is getting surprisingly good buzz. Stranger things have happened.

And then there’s Springsteen on Broadway (Oct. 12). You’ve heard of him?

 

 

 

 

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Is Amy Herzog Our Best Playwright?

I am a big fan of Amy Herzog. For the variety, humanity and sheer storytelling craft of her work (After the Revolution, 4000 Miles, Belleville), I think she may be the best playwright currently at work in America.  Which is why I was just a little disappointed with her new play, Mary Jane, down at the New York Theater Workshop. This one-act, about a single mother trying to cope with a three-year-old child severely disabled by cerebral palsy, is (as usual) impeccably crafted, sharply observed and often moving. But it seems a little slight and safe to me; easy to empathize with, hard to embrace. Constructed as a series of encounters between the mother (Carrie Coon) and various friends, caregivers and hospital personnel, the play doesn’t set up any compelling problem (a hard decision about treatment, say, or how to pay for home health care),  or move in any surprising directions — only sadly, inevitably downward.

Still, it is a touching and insightful play. In contrast to so many current playwrights, who plop their main character at center stage and have them tell the audience what’s going to happen (most recent offender: Sarah Ruhl, in her sappy For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday), Herzog creates characters and backstory that emerge naturally from dialogue, in scenes that build organically, even suspensefully.  Nothing in the play seems false or forced, and it’s much more honest about the way people cope with a medical catastrophe (a mixture of stoicism and denial) than most disease-of-the-week dramas.  (Again, compare it to Ruhl’s play, which opens with a family deathbed scene that struck me as cliched and phony.) So if Mary Jane didn’t entirely satisfy me, it doesn’t lessen my eagerness to keep following Herzog’s exciting career.

Let’s Get This Started

I have been a writer and editor at TIME Magazine for more than 30 years. For the past several of them, I’ve been the magazine’s theater critic. But I don’t get to write about nearly everything that I see. And so I’m starting this blog, as an outlet for some of my views about shows, playwrights, and other theater-related issues. And also, occasionally, other topics that interest me: comedy (I’m the author of two books: Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America and Hope: Entertainer of the Century), television (I was TIME’s television critic for much of the 1980s and ’90s), movies (I learned a lot from Pauline Kael and Richard Corliss), and maybe more.