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Keeping the "Conversation" Alive - a winner at the Wallis

The City of Conversation at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts


June 3, 2016

By Evan Henerson

Had your fill of Election 2016 yet? Is the prospect of a Clinton vs. Trump Armageddon battle leaving you chilly? If so, then Anthony Giardina's The City of Conversation is probably not the diversion for you. The acclaimed play is smart and hugely entertaining, but its west coast premiere at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts is also ferociously timely.

Set among Georgetown movers and shakers while spanning six Presidential administrations, Conversation is less concerned with who wins and loses, but about the cost that victory (and defeat) can take upon the people who work for change. Kenney-era liberals square off against Reaganite world-changers, both insisting that their time is nigh and their opponent's era is at an end. Over the 30 years from 1979 to 2009, representatives of both parties have occasion enough to crow. In Giardina's play, meaningful dialog in what Henry James poignantly called "the city of conversation" screeches to a halt, and a family is ripped apart by the outcomes of national politics

Hester Ferris, the deal-brokering beltway hostess at the play's center, is a role that Giardina could have been written with self-described "political animal" Christine Lahti in mind. The play begins with Hester holding a dinner party aimed at securing a vote to help Ted Kennedy's presidential bid. Three decades later, on the eve of Presidential Obama's inauguration, the lady has barely rested a day. Lahti's Hester is a force of nature, whether clad in a fabulous red dress or grayed up and ready for perhaps her last gala.

Hester needs to be tough. Colin (played by Jason Ritter), the son Hester thought she had groomed for career in blue state politics, returns from school abroad with the ultimate interloper: his fiancée Anna (Georgia King). Anna is smart, beautiful, fearless and ruthlessly ambitious. She embraces the ideals espoused by then-governor Reagan and uses them both to win over Colin and effectively sabotage Hester's dinner with a Kentucky Republican senator. "You won't have to put up with me after tonight," Anna tells Hester at the end of a very interesting first act.

Except, that's not the case, since Anna is both a rising GOP star in the Department of Justice and the future mother of Hester's adorable and moldable grandson, Ethan (Nicholas Oteri). The second act shifts to 1987 where Hester, her sister Jean (Deborah Offner), and her political ally/ lover Chandler Harris (Steven Culp) are in the thick of a new battle: quashing President Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hester, Colin and Anna have worked out enough of a truce that Hester takes care of Ethan's while the boy's parents are working, but with all three invested in the Bork battle, matters threaten to unravel in a major way. The play ends in 2009 with a grown-up Ethan (Ritter again) and his partner Donald (Johnny Ramey) having a difficult reunion with Hester. Obama may be talking about a new America, but battles are still to be fought. Hana Sooyeon Kim's series of period-defining projections surround the arch of Jeff Cowie's set, nicely locating the action.

Giardina's depiction of living room machinations give him the air of a Beltway insider, while his gift for family interaction and dialog highlight his gifts as a storyteller. While it feels a bit dramatically contrived to have these same characters reach two breaking points over a Congressional decision, the production is simply too much fun to overthink the matter. Ritter, sporting a variety of decade marking hair (his mother dislikes his "Republican" seeming mustache) convincingly conveys a limited man yanked between two sharper, more forward-thinking women.

King partners him strongly. Playing a character that the play invites us to despise, the actress peels back Anna's layers to reveal a woman who understands the dangers of her choices even as she is making them. Like every other character in this play, Anna sees herself as being every bit on the side of the angels. Giardina is adept at giving reasonable arguments to potentially unsympathetic people and vice versa.

His play makes a compelling argument for making arguments, for civil disagreements and breaking bread together at the end of the day. I'm reminded of the Looney Tunes adventures of Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog who beat each other to smithereens and then go home together once the workday ending whistle blows. Because she's the product of a different political age, Hester rather naively believes that she can always "move the conversation forward." As it turns out, she is wrong , foolishly idealistic, and she pays a terrible price.

Director Michael Wilson, who helmed the last Broadway revival of Gore Vidal's The Best Man in 2012, is working on a smaller, but no less pointed scale here. His ensemble is, to a person, superb. In roles that clearly have interesting back stories, Culp and Offner are colorful and credible as the two constants in Hester's life. David Selby and Michael Learned as the Kentucky Senator and his sharp, book club- attending wife, wring every bit of humor and caustic irony out of their single scene, and Oteri nicely blends cute and seriousness as little Ethan.

Ultimately, however, The City of Conversation pivots on its Hester. Lahti is a performer who is equally at home playing radicals and housewives, feminists, physicians and kooks. As charismatic as she is frustrating, the Hester centers the drama. Our politics notwithstanding (and in Beverly Hills, there should be a mixture), we want her to have her family and her America, too.

"The City of Conversation" ends Saturday at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. (310) 746-4000,

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