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It is no secret that polarization in Washington has become the norm, but the widening gap between parties hasn’t always been the case. Veteran politicos frequently bemoan the demise of after-hours get-togethers where ideologues who battled by day could chat over bourbon and a cigar, maintaining a civility that oiled the machinery of government. Not anymore, not since Ronald Reagan swept into office in 1980, the era in which Anthony Giardina begins his engaging play, The City of Conversation, a fabricated family drama lifted by strong performances and astute parallels with current dysfunctional D.C. leadership.
Hester Ferris (Christine Lahti) is a Georgetown social maven sprung from the mold of Pamela Harriman, or even legendary political columnist Joseph Alsop, a neighbor whom Hester fondly recalls invited her to a party with Jack Kennedy on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis. A Great Society liberal who has long greased the wheels of the Washington machine in scenic designer Jeff Cowie’s well-appointed New England colonial-style home, Hester operates out of her sunken living room downstage separated from the upstage dining room by a front hall leading to the staircase. It has the homey, unostentatious aura of money that doesn’t feel the need to advertise.
As the drama gets underway, Hester is preparing a dinner party for her live-in lover, Senator Chandler Harris (Steven Culp), and their guests, a Republican senator from Kentucky and his wife (David Selby and Michael Learned). But before the guests arrive, an unexpected couple drops in — her son Colin (Jason Ritter) and his girlfriend/soon-to-be-wife Anna Fitzgerald (Georgina King), fresh from the London School of Economics. An ingenue a little too eager to learn the inner workings of Washington, Anna pumps her future mother-in-law with questions. “I think I saw that movie,” Hester replies, referring to the Bette Davis classic, All About Eve, while Giardina goes on to spell out the reference.
Hester attempts to get the senator to go along with Teddy Kennedy’s proposal that no Supreme Court nominee be allowed to hold membership in country clubs that exclude minorities. But Anna suddenly emerges as a (gasp!) Republican, undermining her host’s plans. Even worse, as horrified as Hester is at the prospect of a Republican in the family, it turns out Anna has also recently converted Colin, her long-haired, Vietnam-protesting son.
A setup that seems ripe for satire instead plays out as family drama, becoming less convincing as the action jumps forward to Reagan’s 1987 nomination of Robert Bork for the Supreme Court. Leaving their boy in the care of Hester during the day, Colin and Anna work for Republican lawmakers whose fates are tied up in the nomination.
Disagreements over Bork create a family rift that would be spoiled by further explanation. Suffice to say that though not a very convincing rift, it has lasting implications. But why all the fuss? Anna has known Hester to be a strident liberal from the very beginning, and the political divide has presumably long been accommodated within the household.
The conflict is Giardina’s attempt to dramatize his theme of weighing relationships against ideas. The problem is Hester’s convictions take the form of some vague liberal superlative instead of more tangible concepts. Despite being overtly political, she has never acted on her beliefs outside of hosting others. So why start now in the face of an ultimatum and at a time when the effort to stop Bork seems to be breaking her way?
Giardina’s own democratic leanings are present throughout The City of Conversation, resulting in wafer-thin arguments in the mouths of Republican characters like the senator from Kentucky (a rollicking performance by Selby), whose main reason for barring minorities from country clubs is his enjoyment of the rolling grassy hills, something, he concludes, they wouldn’t understand.
The new breed of Republican, Anna, is given a Stepford-wife quality by King, who wrings as much nuance as she can from an often one-dimensional character. Her main function is as a foil for Hester. Her future husband, the privileged hippie-kid Colin, is keenly established in the first act. (“Other kids got Pat the Bunny, I got selections from De Tocqueville,” he explains.) But the character doesn’t go anywhere despite a vivid performance by Ritter, who doubles as his own grown-up son, Ethan, in the last act.
Colin’s abrupt embrace of conservative ideas is never fully explained, and Hester seems curiously reluctant to press the point. And while Lahti delivers a canny, vulpine portrayal as the bereft doyenne, her claims on the night of Barack Obama’s inauguration that the important work of past policymakers will lead to the day where gay couples might one day marry seem hubristic at least, if not delusional when you consider social change tends to be driven by the public first, with lawmakers following.
The strengths of The City of Conversation are in some of Giardina’s well-written passages, and in the cast of this production, directed by Michael Wilson (The Orphans’ Home Cycle), whose fluid work helps to paper over a dramatic construct bordering on contrivance. Despite the fine work of Culp as Senator Chandler and Deborah Offner as Hester’s widowed sister turned gal Friday, both are wasted in underwritten roles.
Unprecedented in modern times, the current political divide would make for a potent play. But with standards in leadership being lowered on a steady basis, it’s hard to see that play as anything other than comedy. The City of Conversation was how novelist Henry James referred to Washington. And while Giardina’s play offers a number of laughs and moments of pathos, it’s never as ridiculous nor as tragic as the milieu it describes.
Venue: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Beverly Hills
Cast: Christine Lahti, Deborah Offner, Jason Ritter, Georgia King, Steven Culp, David Selby, Michael Learned, Nicholas Oteri, Johnny Ramey
Director: Michael Wilson
Playwright: Anthony Giardina
Set designer: Jeff Cowie
Costume designer: David C. Woolard
Lighting designer: Lap Chi Chu
Sound designer: John Gromada
Projection designer: Hana Sooyeon Kim
Presented by Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, by special arrangement with Samuel French
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