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Review: The City of Conversation

Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts


May 24, 2016

By Travis Michael Holder

It has been said that many of the biggest deals in Hollywood happen at cocktail parties. Back in the day, before national politics turned bloody and morphed into The Hunger Games, the same thing was often true in Washington, D.C. When playwright Anthony Giardina read an article centering on the more polite era of the 1950s and '60s in a town Henry James once referred to as a "city of conversations," his intrigue was piqued. Washington was then widely known as a place where wealthy socialites invited politicians from both parties to their Georgetown or Kalorama mansions for lavish sit-down dinners where everyone could relax, drink cognac, and smoke a big cigar before returning to congressional meetings the next day to heatedly argue their opposite perspectives.

In Giardina's smartly loquacious play spanning 1979 to 2009, Hester Ferris (Christine Lahti) is such a hostess. With a decided leaning toward the Great Society's left wing and a live-in married senator (Steven Culp) for a boyfriend, Hester's life in her stately Georgetown townhome seems to revolve around getting her causes quietly entrenched in the minds of her adversaries. It's akin to the drip, drip, drip of Chinese water torture, with gushing compliments and silver plates full of hors d'oeuvres utilized to make her point rather than restraints.

Just as she and her widowed sister–assistant Jean (Deborah Offner) are planning one of Hester's most important evenings of the season, her son, Colin (Jason Ritter), arrives home after finishing his studies at the London School of Economics. Hester is at first appalled by Colin's long hair and scruffy Country Joe McDonald appearance, but that melts quickly when she spots the girl he has brought home to meet mom and announce their engagement.

Hester is instantly put off by Anna (Georgia King), from her knee-high fringed suede boots to her syrupy condescending attitude, eventually bluntly warning Colin's intended to be careful, since in D.C. "they can smell ambition a mile away." Hester's wariness is quickly exacerbated as Anna bombards her with endless questions and suspect adoration.

Act 2 starts in 1987, and Colin and Anna are indeed married and parents of Ethan (Nicholas Oteri), the grandson Hester dotes over perhaps more than she ever did her son. The emasculated Colin has turned conservative and, thanks to his wife's balls-out aspirations and expectations, is desperately trying to hold their teetering marriage together. To stop Hester from publishing an open letter condemning Ronald Reagan's proposed appointment of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, Anna threatens to remove Ethan entirely from his grandmother's life. In the final scene, taking place in 2009, the adult Ethan (Ritter) returns to the august but now barren old house to reconnect with his grandmother.

There's much promise and sharply whimsical, intelligent dialogue here, but the plot tends toward the melodramatic and easily predictable. Director Michael Wilson gleans fine performances from most of his cast, although why he hasn't kept several of them from consistently playing important lines and speeches directly front is puzzling.

Lahti gives a rich, exceeding multilayered performance as Hester, even though she and all the other characters who survive the story's three decades never seem to age below Carol F. Doran's period-defining wigs. Ritter finds credible nuance as Colin but melts hearts when he reenters as the adult Ethan, bringing along his African-American male partner (Johnny Ramey), which prompts Hester to reflect that without the fight she waged, in 2009 barely remembered or honored, they would not be able to "live your lives fully."

Offner, Culp, and Ramey make considerable points in less-pivotal or less-written roles, while King is yet to overcome and soar above the continuous clichés penned into her abrasive character. David Selby falls into all the pits as the old-school, bellowing Kentucky-machine politico who, if he were any more Southern, could out-bluster Foghorn Leghorn himself. Michael Learned, however, in a too-brief cameo as that senator's obviously long-suffering and unobtrusively patient wife, steals her one scene handily, only opening her mouth when what will come out of it is too shrewdly calculated to be overlooked.

The point here isn't hard to grasp, as the participants in the grand old-style political circus that spawned the near apocalypse of our government today lead lives as dysfunctional and flawed as anyone else. Yet despite the crispness of the dialogue and a magnificent design team galvanized around Jeff Cowie's richly spectacular set, Giardina's arguments and his characters remain unsurprising and even somewhat trite. But even if the denouement is easy to foresee, thanks to the skill level of the major players it's deeply moving.

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