“Time and the Conways”

and the “Dolly” Follies

 

by TONY VELLELA

 

Credit Roundabout Theatre Company and director Rebecca Taichman for resisting any temptation to update J. B. Priestley’s “Time and the Conways,” written in 1937.  There is great value in experiencing dramatic work as it was written, for the time it was written about.  In Priestley’s case, this play’s ‘contemporary’ scenes are bracketed with scenes from 1919, which gives the story the contrasting sensibilities he seems to have wanted to achieve.

Whether he does that completely depends on what you are focusing on.  The Conways, whose matriarch [“Downton Abbey’s”  Elizabeth McGovern] is a well-taken-care-of still young widow, juggling the serious as well as the frivolous challenges her six young adult children – four daughters, two sons – come up with.  More often, she’s playful and unserious, qualities she hopes will be passed to them – she’s just one of the girls.

At rise, Neil Patel’s set places us in the morning room of the large and well-appointed villa of the Conways, an airy, comfortable home base where casual gatherings take place.  They are part way into celebrating the birthday of young Kay, whose literary ambitions are, at turns, admired and scorned.  Order of the day for such celebrations [at least in those days] is for the five children still living at home, plus Mother, to  perform short charades sketches for the guests, giving everyone license to don funny hats, quirky clothing pieces and fake moustaches.  Mercifully, these are done offstage.  They all seem to be getting a bit more fun out of it than the audience, but when in Rome . . .

Midway through the evening, the arrival of sixth child, Robin, who has been away serving King and country in the Great War, is an unexpected, and joyous event.  Priestley presents this Conway menage at the dawn of this new chapter, each member casting about, seeking their purpose, defining their identity, or trying to.  In addition to Kay and Robin [whose next goal seems to be catching up on the good times he missed and letting tomorrow take care of itself], the family circle also includes stern  Hazel, a Socialist advocate; stylish Madge, currently the object of a new man in the neighborhood who seems to be everywhere she is; passive Alan, a go-along, get-along type contented to permit all the women in the household to move him around as they see fit, and effervescent Carol, whose zest for living life to its fullest keeps her bouncing around the room from chair to chair, lap to lap.

If this sounds like a set-up scene, that’s because it mostly is.  The girls, except for Hazel, live life in the superlatives – if something is unsatisfactory, it’s not just poorly done or lacking all that it might, it’s “ghastly!”  Madge’s man in the shadows, Ernest Beevers [the mention of his name always produces giggles and scoffs], is a stolid businessman who, uninvited, joins the group for a short time, to profess his deep admiration for her.  She is predictably dismissive.

Patel’s gorgeous set then retreats, and down slowly drops another version of the same room, circa 1937.  Here’s Priestley’s real canvas, where he lays out his points of view on society’s ills, personal faults, failed relationships and indiscriminate management of one’s resources and holdings.  England is enduring the pains of the Great Slump [what the Brits called the Great Depression], and the Conways are textbook examples of how the former upper middle class has lost its place of privilege.

The teachings of British philosopher John William Dunne exerted strong influence on Priestley.  His concept of time as a malleable condition of all life creates an almost surreal climate in this second section, eighteen years later, when the serendipitous choices and miscalculations they’ve all made have fully matured.  One by one by one, their stations in this life are revealed.  A disastrous marriage, an alcoholic addiction, a harsh, unforgiving temperament and a sense of near total ambition find their ways into one or the other of the adult Conway children.  One has been lost to a premature death.

More telling that the fates of her children is where Mrs. Conway finds herself.  The generous financial position her husband left her in has been squandered.  The house, once highly prized at the close of the war, is more relic than realm.  And it falls to the former outsider Mr. Beevers, who has married into and insinuated himself into the family Conway, to point out just how critical things are for her, and them.  Still nostalgically imagining they are the upper class, they hear from Beavers that they are no longer living at the close of the last war.  They are marking time now “at the beginning of the next one.”  The chilling moment is lent even more impact because of the casting.  A brilliant acting discovery a few seasons back in “Hand to God,” Steven Boyer fairly dazzles in his colorlessness.  He wants no more than what he has attained.  And he wants no part of using his resources to rescue his in-laws.  They provided what he wanted at the outset, a trophy wife and early on, an introduction to the society that has long since evaporated.

The structure Priestley has fashioned, sandwiching the 1937 scenes between the first and the second 1919 sections, is more than a reminder of how what was past is present, and what is ahead cannot be shaped.  We are still at Kay’s birthday party the second time around.  Early signs of character damage appear, and without the foreknowledge the previous 1937 section has provided, they may pass barely noticed.  A dreamlike state seems to envelope Kay, whose high-mindedness and quest for a literary, even intellectual and spiritual existence, seems to be less an asset than something ever ever so slowly draining out her valued vitality.

Whose vitality, you ask, has not drained away?  That brightest of lights on  Fourteenth Street, the woman whose comings and goings are endlessly fascinating – the widow Dolly Gallagher Levi.   This tuneful tsunami first hit the Broadway boards on January 14, 1964, following a years-long grind wherein producer David Merrick, composer-lyricist Jerry Herman and librettist Michael Stewart agonized over how to turn the Thornton Wilder “The Matchmaker” into a musical, and who to bestow the title role to.  Every Broadway 101 student knows that Carol Channing exploded into the stratosphere when she first put her hand in here, and put her hand in there, and remained in the role for years.  Less well-known is that Merrick expected Ethel Merman to star, and when she turned up her nose, Mary Martin was courted, who did the same thing.  Both of them eagerly took their turns at the Harmonia Gardens when the show opened in London.  Lucky Carol.

Dolly’s parentage, however, goes way way back – to 1835!  British playwright John Oxenford penned “A Day Well Spent,” featuring some of the same basic elements, and seven years later, Viennese composer Johann Nestroy added his songs to the story, and titled it “He Will Go on a Spree,” in which the chief clerk’s journey into the big city formed the central core.  About a century later [1938], Thornton Wilder became intrigued with the tale, and opened “The Merchant of Yonkers,” and rather quickly, the show’s merchant, and all the others, closed.

Never one to accept defeat – some of Wilder’s other diverse credits include about 60 plays, among them “The Skin of Our Teeth” and “Our Town,” as well as the chilling screenplay he wrote for Alfred Hitchcock, “Shadow of a Doubt” – he decided to bring the matchmaker out from her mothballs.  As a gift for close friend Ruth Gordon, Wilder rewrote the playscript, and the 1955 Broadway hit “The Matchmaker” was born.   Shirley Booth, 1955 Oscar winner for “Come Back, Little Sheba,” was tapped for the 1958 picture, in a cast that featured Tony Perkins, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Morse.

Hello, Dolly!
Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Carol became the iconic Dolly, the one future widows would be compared to.  And the announcement in 2016 that Bette Midler would revive the blockbuster set off a ticket-buying surge that still continues.  Her contract runs out in January.

How do you replace a star?  Merrick set that standard by replacing Channing with other stars, a practice not done in the ’60s, and those stairs would be downtrodden by, among others,  Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers and Martha Raye.

To my mind, Raye was the overall best, drawing from split-second comedy timing, dancing she displayed in several 1930s tuners, and a powerful jazz-inflected singing voice that shook the rafters.  And now . . . you know, of course.  Envelope, please.  The parasol goes to – Bernadette Peters.

Merrick shook the foundations of Broadway when, seeing that ticket sales were beginning to lag four or five years in, made a bold pronouncement.  He would mount an all-Black cast to travel from Yonkers to Manhattan eight times a week.  His choice for Dolly?  The larger-than-life-itself Pearl Bailey.  Her casting paid off handsomely, and once again Merrick proved nay-sayers wrong.  Of course, the fact that Pearly had a recurring yen to do an ad lib stand-up and song-and-dance ditty once the actual show ended gave him no end of pain.  But she came through.

While the title song, and a few others, such as “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and “Before the Parade Passes By” found their way into cover versions [Hello, Louis], nightclub acts, T-V variety shows and radio play, attention paid to Jerry Herman’s knack for lyric-writing that advanced the story line and honored his music took a back seat.  To his credit, the only real ‘lift’ Herman took from Wilder’s dialogue was ‘I put my hand in here.  I put my hand in there.”  The rest is all Jerry.

A few tasty examples: “When a man with a timid tongue, meets a girl with a diffident air, why should the tortured creatures beat around the bush, when heaven knows, Mother Nature always needs a little push.  I put my hand in here . . .”  And “Twist a little, stir a little, Him a little, Her a little, Shape a little, mold a little, some poor chap gets sold a little, When I use my fist a little, Some young bride gets kissed a little.  Pressure with the thumbs.  Matrimony comes.  When I put my hand in there.”

Or how about: “It takes a woman, all powdered and pink, to joyously clean out the drain in the sink.  And it takes an angel with long golden ashes, and soft Dresden fingers, for dumping the ashes.”

With the question of who seduces Horace for the next year or so has been answered, one wonders where the search will then lead.  Will this revival run long enough to see Sutton Foster putting her hand in here?  Can history repeat itself with Audra McDonald putting her hand in there?  It’s a pretty good bet that, in words from Herman’s own hand, “Dolly’ll never go away again!”

On Book

The remarkable dexterity of Thornton Wilder’s writing, as well as his complicated and harrowing at times personal life, come alive in Penelope Niven’s “Thornton Wilder – A Life.”  Edward Albee contributed the foreword to this valuable examination of one of the twentieth century’s greatest . . . If “Time and the Conways” is your first exposure to J. B. Priestley, you’ll thank yourself for picking up a copy of his better-known “An Inspector Calls,” a engaging thriller of a play that had its most recent visit to our shores, a Best Revival of a Play Tony winner in 1994, also bestowing the award on director Stephen Daldry and featured actress Jane Adams . . . Jerry Herman’s career has had its own musical theatre moments, good and bad, and Stephen Citron’s “Jerry Herman – Poet of the Showtune” lets us in on it.  Published by Yale University Press, his golden age parallels a vital period for musicals, a period of transition and change, 1961 to 2000 . . . And the legend who is responsible for more nasty tricks, more snubs and salvos, and probably more hits than anyone else in the zany history of Broadway, David Merrick, is given a zesty biographical treatment in theatre critic Howard Kissel’s “David Merrick – The Abominable Showman – The Unauthorized Biography.”  Kissel’s easy way with words stems from his years as chief theatre critic for The New York Daily News.  Lucky us.

 

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, ‘Character Studies.’  His play ‘Admissions’ won the Best Play Award at the New York International Fringe Festival, and is published by Playscripts.  He has written several other plays and musicals, including “Mister,” with composer Misha Piatigorsky, for Anthony Rapp.  His performing arts features have appeared in dozens of publications, including Life Magazine, Rolling Stone, Parade, Dramatics and The Christian Science Monitor.  His documentary ‘Test of Time’ was an award-winner for Lifetime Television.

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CARMEL CAR & LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since 1978, has been selected as the official transportation company for Intermission Talk.  Its wide variety of services, including special theatre packages, and reservations, are available at www.carmellimo.com, the Carmel App, or at 212 – 666 – 6666.

 

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Books recommended or referenced in Intermission Talk are available at, or through Manhattan’s special Tony Award-winning Drama Bookshop, 250 west 40th street, NYC 10018, at 212 – 944 – 0595, or at www.dramabookshop.com.

 

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