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Review: When a 'City of Conversation' becomes a union divided:
|By Charles McNulty
Location, location, location. The setting for certain plays can have as much personality as any character. Indeed, in these post-mortgage-crisis days of real estate dreaming, a desirable property in the right part of town could give even a protagonist a run for her money.
This is certainly the case in "The City of Conversation," Anthony Giardina's pertinent political drama set in the handsome Georgetown townhouse of Hester Ferris, an influential hostess in the Pamela Harriman mode who brings together Washington's power brokers to advance progressive causes.
The production, which opened Friday at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts under the direction of Michael Wilson, makes the most of its posh Washingtonian milieu. Set over three different watershed periods in the history of modern-day liberalism, the play unfolds in a living room where history receives some behind-the-scenes nudging.
As suavely played by Christine Lahti, Hester is a soft-spoken, iron-willed Great Society liberal on a mission. Elegantly attired to show off a frame that is as slender as it is statuesque, she is highly skilled at the art of socializing, understanding that her nighttime work is every bit as important as the daytime deal-making going on at the Capitol.
Hester describes the gatherings at her home (tastefully appointed by scenic designer Jeff Cowie) as "tense with purpose," though the flirtatious hobnobbing, literary small talk and good cognac ensure that no one will ever turn down one of her invitations. To be on her guest list is a confirmation of being part of the ruling elite.
Visitors to the house will learn it sits opposite another famous Georgetown salon, the one presided over by political columnist Joseph Alsop, where John F. Kennedy one night received some fateful advice about the Russians from none other than Isaiah Berlin. (Giardina's play, which was originally produced by Lincoln Center Theater in 2014, could be packaged as a boxed set with David Auburn's 2012 play about Alsop, "The Columnist.")
Hester shares the house with her widowed sister, Jean (Deborah Offner), who serves as her gal Friday, and Chandler Harris (Steven Culp), a senator from Virginia whose inconvenient marriage imposes on Hester a discretion that is perfectly natural in this city of secrets and incessant conversation.
The drama begins in 1979, just as Ted Kennedy is preparing to challenge Jimmy Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination. Hester, a die-hard devotee of the Kennedys, is preparing for a soiree in which George Mallonee (David Selby), a conservative Republican senator from Kentucky, and his wife, Carolyn (Michael Learned in a brief but wonderful turn), have been invited so that Chandler can persuade George to support a bill that will boost Kennedy's odds of defeating Carter.
The unexpected arrival of Hester's son, Colin (Jason Ritter), and his ambitious girlfriend Anna (Georgia King), who have both just finished their studies at the London School of Economics, alters the dinner party dynamic. Hester senses that Anna would like to play Eve to her Margo Channing in a political remake of "All About Eve." But she is completely shocked to learn that both Anna and her son have been swept up in the new Republican wave that will propel Ronald Reagan, whom Hester dismisses as "that washed-up movie star governor," straight to the White House.
The second half of the play is divided into two periods. The first takes place in 1987, just as Hester is working feverishly to block Robert Bork from becoming a Supreme Court Justice — a fight she is waging against her son, who has not only married Anna but has adopted her stridently conservative worldview. The second, about which not much can be said without spoiling the plot, is set in 2009, on the evening of President Barack Obama's inauguration, when battle-weary liberals are watching younger progressives celebrate a new dawn.
Giardina, a novelist as well as a playwright, has constructed a plot (with some rather old-fashioned mechanics) that connects family turmoil to the fate of contemporary American politics. "The City of Conversation" captures the changing tenor of the way Washington conducts business as the ideological balance of power keeps shifting and scorched earth tactics become routine.
"You know, one of the nice things I always believed about Georgetown was the way we all used to lay down our arms at the end of the day and become convivial," Hester says in a heated exchange with Anna. "As if to say, though the battles are very real, we are all finally people, and we have to rest and break bread together in order to get up the next day and do battle again."
That era, as Hester's disintegrating relationship with her son and daughter-in-law reveals, has ended. The play mournfully depicts the way in which Washington has grown so factionalized that opposing sides can no longer stand to be in the same room with one another. The human element has been lost, and neither the left nor the right can plead innocent in this coarsening of American politics.
Set in the past, "The City of Conversation" feels uncannily of the moment. Unfortunately, the play's resonant ideas aren't always convincingly rendered on the level of character and dialogue. There's a blunt carpentry to some of Giardinia's playwriting that results in melodramatic flourishes that not even an actor as subtle as Lahti can soften.
King has perhaps the toughest time trying to make Anna into something more than simply Hester's increasingly truculent antagonist. Giardina is alert to the ironies in the attitudes and positions of both liberal and conservative hard-liners, but Anna's credibility as a character charts a steady decline.
There's strong work from Ritter, whose restraint conveys Colin's Oedipally conflicted heart, though too bad he's saddled with such a ludicrous wig in Act 1. Culp, in a straightforwardly realistic role flecked with minimal color, makes it easy to imagine Chandler talking policy with CNN's Wolf Blitzer.
As George, Selby accentuates the Kentucky senator's showboating Southern flair. Offner isn't able to do much with obedient lap dog Jean.
Lahti wisely underplays Hester's ideological convictions only to make them seem all the more pronounced when in pitched battle with her family. Her performance never lets us lose sight of the personal toll of these political wars, the damage they wreak not only on our system but on our collective humanity.
In an election year that promises to be one of the most vitriolic in history, this is a reminder all of us should heed.
"The City of Conversation"
Where: Bram Goldsmith Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills,When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 4, Tickets: $39-$110,Info: (310) 746-4000, www.thewallis.org,Running time: 2 hours and 5 minutes (including one 15-minute intermission)