'Time and the Conways' on Broadway

by Bryan Reesman
in Inside Theater
Elizabeth McGovern stars in this remake. Photos by Jeremy Daniel
Elizabeth McGovern stars in this remake. Photos by Jeremy Daniel

Neil Patel Devises Scenic Transitions for a Vintage Time-Traveling Play

Time and the Conways is one of those rare Broadway revivals that truly makes vintage material relevant for a modern audience through a magical blend of performances and technical wizardry.

The 80-year-old play by J. B. Priestley is one of four “Time Plays” he wrote during his career, and this particular work focuses on a British family which is presided over by a widowed and strong-willed matriarch (Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern).

While the lives of the six Conway children seem full of promise as they ride the cusp of adulthood, time, financial issues, and personal machinations erode their hopes and dreams and lead them down a darker path than they imagined possible.

The period piece stretched from 1917 1937 and back in time

    Traveling Through Time
The original play was divided into three acts — the first taking place in 1919, the second jumping forward to 1937 and the third returning to 1919. As the play tackles the concepts of simultaneity in time and all moments being experienced at once, this narrative time reversal is appropriate and adds irony to the story in a way reminiscent of the musical Merrily We Roll Along.
As modern Broadway productions tend towards two act scenarios, the first two acts of Time and the Conways are presented sequentially without a break before intermission, which requires two versions of the parlor set from the two different time periods to occupy the onstage concurrently.

This unusual approach required innovative thinking and working with director Rebecca Taichman, scenic designer Neil Patel dreamed up an original solution. Upon the end of Act I, the first set slides and recedes upstage while the Act II set is lowered down from above and placed in front of the Act I (and Act III) set. What makes this transition even more interesting is that the Act II set has a fabric wall through which the audience can see the first set as well as Carol, one of the characters who passes away between those two time periods. As Act II plays out, the lighting on the first set is increased so its ghostly presence becomes more noticeable.

The second act showing the ravages of time and the changes in fashion.”

    Scenic Transitions
As the Act I set has an actual ceiling, the upper half of the proscenium arch is filled in until the Act II set is flown down. “At the beginning of the play, we wanted to create a certain expectation with the audience, [for them] to think it was a sealed, conventional set, so that when we brought in the Act II set it was a surprise,” says Patel.

Patel worked on the first rendition of this revival with Taichman at the Old Globe in San Diego three and a half years ago. The concept of the set change was the same, but the show’s creative team did not have the resources afforded them now to pull it off back then. The walls of the second set were flown in and the furniture was tracked on. The scenic designer notes that, during its original 1938 run, the show would have simply had a intermission between the first two acts that would have allowed for an unseen set change.

“It was very much written to have two realistic sets, the second act showing the ravages of time and the changes in fashion,” explains Patel. “In the writing, he [Priestly] talks so much about the simultaneity of time, so we wanted to visualize that in the production. That was the impetus for having the 1919 and 1937 sets be able to exist simultaneously on the stage.”

He brings up another interesting point about this 80 year-old show. The way audiences perceived it back then would be the same way in which modern theatergoers would respond to a play set in the late ‘90s that moves forward to the current day. We would be finely attuned of the changes in fashion and home décor. But Patel thinks that audiences today would be not be as likely to differentiate as easily between trends from 1919 and 1937. (He admits that he, for one, would not.) Thus, having a see-through wall into the past “was also a way to clarify what was going on in the play, just to make very clear the jump in time. And like I said before, to express the cosmic idea of all moments in life being simultaneous.”

The set for Acts I and III (in 1919) is constructed with wood over a metal frame. Although it has a floor and the same replica furniture of its more lavish twin, the Act II set (1937) lacks a ceiling and is created from some different material. Patel recalls the discussions about the different options for the transparent back wall. Initially, they contemplated using Lexan, which is “a poly carbonate Plexiglas which would make it seem like the room is made of glass and then printing a blueprint onto that,” he says. “The problem with that was it required an enormous amount of structure, and it felt like the wrong kind of vibe for the play — too shiny and high-tech, so we went with this fabric called voile, which is like a chiffon. It has similar properties to theatrical shark tooth scrim, but it’s much finer.”

Over the course of Act II the lighting of the fabric wall subtly increases in transparency, revealing more details of  the room

    An Ethereal Look
The Korean artist Do-ho Suh, who creates buildings out of structured fabric, provided the chief inspiration for the second room. “It’s kind of like a ghost room, so it has to resemble identically the architecture of the other room in the line work and the shape, but we wanted it to be transparent and feel right,” says Patel. “That’s the other trick that the shop helped me in figuring out, how to create something that didn’t feel heavy structurally. I wanted a minimum amount of structure as possible, but we’re also carrying a 30-foot-wide floor. It was tricky to figure out how to maintain the likeness of the look and at the same time be able to fly in and out with all of the furniture. And the actors need to play the whole scene on the set, so it has to be a fairly sturdy piece of scenery.”

Over the course of Act II, and building up to the intermission, the lighting of the fabric wall very subtly increases in transparency, revealing more details of the original version of the room — its former opulence along with the ghostly presence of Carol, whose very still figure sits still, sometimes watching them, during the course of Act II. “It’s quite extreme at the very end of the act when Alan [Conway] is explaining the philosophy of the play,” says Patel. “We want it to be as transparent as possible to the Act I set. It’s the same thing if you would light scrim — you want a lot of light upstage and very little light downstage. You want to try to keep the light off of the fabric when you want to see through it. It would make it too opaque if you front light it.”

According to Patel, voile does not stretch the way that scrim does. “We had to put it all on the frames and paint it stretched, because once it’s set, it’s set,” he says. “There’s no way you can wiggle it and take wrinkles out. It’s not theatrical material, but it has the right qualities.”

Given the integration of fabric into its framework, the Act II set is lighter and easier to keep raised and then lowered. “It’s really just the platform and structure,” says Patel. “It’s only supported on either end. It’s a 30’ span with no other supports in the middle; it’s being held in the four corners. There’s quite a bit of trussing in the platform to keep it rigid. That was another problem — no matter how rigid it is, there’s a certain amount of deflection in the center. That was a technical thing we had to solve in the technical rehearsal, because the set had a slight smile so the center of the platform touched the deck first, then you had to rest the rest of it in. We ended up with something that felt quite magical, but at first it was a little rocky. It’s a tricky thing to fly in gracefully.”

Patel says there was not enough room to fly in both sets, the dimensions of which are 14 feet deep, 30 feet wide and 12 feet high. He reveals that there is a two-foot apron downstage that stays in when the Act II set tracks on, “so that it creates enough depth. At the end of the play, that apron tracks with the [Act I] set so you never notice that it’s a separate piece.”

Time and the Conways revival photos by Jeremy Daniel

    Forward to the Past
At the end of the show, the character of Carol, alive for us once more as we have hopped back in time, steps out of the window of the 1919 set, which slowly begins to recede back upstage as she reflects on a vague premonition of what may befall the family. Her brother Alan soon joins her, so they have both literally stepped out of time for the show’s final moments.

“I love the way that worked,” enthuses Patel. “When we did it for the first time in San Diego, we hadn’t actually planned on that move in our storyboarding. That’s something that developed in rehearsal, to have the set recede. That also feels like the way time functions. Things literally move away into the past, and you’re outside of them. The tricky thing about that move was getting it to be silent. A lot of people in the audience don’t realize what’s happening at first. The set is just moving onstage. It’s cool that if you weren’t aware or focused on it you wouldn’t know what was going on. It seemed like it morphed into that look.”

Prior to this show, Patel had never flown in a whole set before, and the San Diego production ultimately served as a practice run for Broadway. “It’s a great luxury to get to do something twice, so the fact that we had done one version of this and got to do it again was great,” he says. “You get to refine and get deeper into it because you’re pretty confident about the basic concept. You get to really dive into detail.”

Time and the Conways has received many favorable reviews, and Patel says he has heard positive feedback about his two-set configuration. “It surprises the audience, and it helps to clarify what’s going on in the play,” he says. “I think it achieves a kind of gracefulness or beauty in the way it transforms. I usually do sets that are very subtle and sometimes almost invisible in the way that they blend in with the play and the theater, so it’s fun to do something where you’re very aware of the set changing or transforming. It’s great to get that feedback.”

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