By: David Sheward
The title of Anthony Giardina’s witty and moving new play, at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse, is how Henry James described Washington, D.C., i
n a time of civility as opposing parties would break bread at elegant dinner parties to hammer out their differences. Giardina skillfully documents how the conversation between friendly rivals has descended into partisan stalemate. Chronicling the ugly divide in one prominent family from the Carter to the Obama administrations with style and irony, the playwright traces our national decline into polarized camps armed with talking points and demographics. Staged with precision by Doug Hughes and acted by a sturdy company of vets and newcomers, The City of Conversation is well-worth talking about and seeing.
The action revolves around liberal hostess Hester Ferris, the consort of a married senator. She deftly manipulates legislation between cocktails at her fashionable Georgetown mansion (tastefully designed by John Lee Beatty). But she seems to have met her match in Anna Fitzgerald, an ambitious, Reaganite graduate of London School of Economics who has set her cap on running D.C. and snagging Hester’s somewhat mediocre son Colin, also just matriculated from the same school and ready to rebel against mom. After Anna and Colin marry and as Anna’s star ascends, Hester continues work against her daughter-in-law’s policies, leading to a devastating family crisis that is resolved in the final act, set on the evening of Obama’s first inauguration.
Giardina skews his argument to the progressive side and reduces his conservative characters to bitter malcontents, but his theme of people and positions coming into conflict still registers strongly. When an elderly Hester is confronted with her estranged grandson Ethan, she doesn’t pull any punches in letting him know that political actions have personal consequences. But, she firmly avers, you should be able to connect with family and friends without sacrificing your principles.
It seems every time she draws a breath, Jan Maxwell gets nominated for an award, but she really is outstanding here. Hester could easily have become a domineering schemer in the mold of a Joan Crawford heroine, but Maxwell fully and believably delineates both her noble fortitude and her down-and-dirty calculating side. Watch as she sweet-talks a Kentucky senator and his wife after having slammed their state as backward in an earlier scene. She’s equally convincing playing up to and mocking them. Then she transforms into a still-vital but physically diminished old woman in the last scene, documenting the arc of this fascinating character’s life.
Kristen Bush provides the perfect counterweight as the equally driven Anna, while Michael Simpson gives life to the milquetoast Colin. He doubles as Colin’s gay son Ethan, and has been directed to play up the swishy stereotype more than a little. Beth Dixon endows the small role of Jean, Hester’s secretary-like sister, with a life’s worth of history, as does Maxwell and the author for all the personages in this meaty drama. It’s exciting to have a well-written play about ideas on or Off-Broadway, and no matter what your political persuasion, you’ll find much to relish in this one.
May 27, 2014
May 5-July 6. Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St., NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $77-87. (212) 239-6200.
Photos: Stephanie Berger