The successful Broadway political dramedies are few and far between. The oft-revived The Best Man,the long-running Affairs of State, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning State of the Union are among the handful that come to mind. To that list add Anthony Giardina’s witty and insightful The City of Conversation which covers 30 years and depicts life during three presidential administrations. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that at the very center of this play is the delicious and delightful Jan Maxwell who as Washington hostess Hester Ferris might just be making this seem better than it is. In any case, this new play being given a marvelously satisfying production by director Doug Hughes at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse is vastly entertaining and has a great deal to say about insider D.C. politics.
Novelist Henry James is responsible for the title as he famously called the capital “the city of conversation” and what refined and literate talk Giardina has given his characters. The play begins in September 1979 as we listen to President Jimmy Carter’s “Malaise” speech in which he says that Americans are becoming disaffected with Washington, by which he means the Democratic Party. Liberal Georgetown hostess Hester is preparing for a dinner party for the Republican senator from Kentucky and his wife to discuss “a little judiciary thing”- to put a stop to Federal judges belonging to all-white country clubs. In walks her son Colin just back from his graduation from the London School of Economics a day early – or is he? – with his new girlfriend Anna Fitzgerald.
While Colin is athletic and handsome but no thinker, Anna is not only winner of the prestigious Ormsby Prize given to the best undergraduate, she is also brilliant and highly ambitious. Hostess Hester tells Anna, “We’re an arm of the government, you might say. Georgetown Dinners in Georgetown. Or we were. And will be again,” before she discovers that Anna is a Conservative Republican and has a hidden agenda of her own. And Anna has turned Colin against his mother’s liberal politics. Hester quickly sees Anna as a snake in the grass and when Anna indicates that she wants to watch her in action, Hester compares her to Eve Harrington in All About Eve. The lines are drawn for a continued battle when Colin tells his mother that he plans to marry Anna, just before Senator Mallonee arrives.
When we meet up with them in the second act of the play, it is September 1987, the tail end of the Reagan Presidency, and the burning and divisive issue is the nomination of conservative Judge Robert Bork for the Supreme Court. It is eight years later and Hester is babysitting for Colin and Anna’s six-year-old son Ethan. Anna has an excellent job at the Reagan Justice Department while Colin works for a minor Republican senator. Hester may be out of power but she is still in business: she is working to derail Bork’s nomination. The problem is that she has promised Colin that she would stay out of the fight. Although Anna has become disenchanted with Colin, she gives Hester an ultimatum that will have long lasting repercussions. In the final scene, it is January 20, 2009, the evening of Barack Obama’s inauguration. With most of Washington celebrating at the inaugural balls, Hester now in her eighties has a surprise visitor. She may be a senior citizen with less energy and her party has been out of power for eight years, but she is still as sharp as ever and as committed to what she thinks is right.
Maxwell who has been nominated for awards for eight performances in recent years is superb. From her silken manner which hides a rapier wit as well as her impassioned delivery when Hester’s beliefs are at stake, she is both noble and memorable. Dressed to the nines by Catherine Zuber, she is every bit the Washington power broker. The elegant townhouse by John Lee Beatty is the perfect setting for her sovereignty whether she is at home with her family or entertaining outsiders. Maxwell holds the sprawling play together and is equally convincing as she ages 30 years in the course of the evening but never loses her edge.
Director Hughes has surrounded her with an excellent cast all attuned to the nuances of the drawing room comedy, a fading art. Michael Simpson makes son Colin and later grown-up grandson Ethan two very different and revealing characters. While Anna at times seems two-dimensional and a mouthpiece for the conservative point of view, Kristen Bush makes her a worthy adversary at the same time that she shows us the woman underneath. Kevin O’Rourke gives a polished performance as Hester’s patrician partner, the senior senator from Virginia. John Aylward and Barbara Garrick are amusing as back country Kentucky politicians who are savvier than people take them for. As Hester’s sister Jean, Beth Dixon is one of those self-effacing helpers who hold their own among stronger personalities.
Although we always know where the author’s sympathies lie, The City of Conversation is very rewarding theater whatever your political persuasion may be. The use of the social and political climate of the last 30 years is astutely delineated and always part of the fabric of the play, rather than a history lesson. Under Doug Hughes’ polished direction, the zingers and one-liners always land right where they are intended to. As the Washington political hostess with the mostest, Jan Maxwell gives the sort of performance you know will enter the annals of theater greats. This is one dinner party that you should not miss.
The City of Conversation (through July 6, 2014)
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, 150 W. 65th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.lct.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission