Every once in a while a play is announced for Broadway production with names attached to it that are not familiar to me. Such a case is The City of Conversation by Anthony Giardina, with a cast headed by the one name I recognized, and that is Jan Maxwell who has been brightening the companies of plays and musicals on and off Broadway for 25 years.
Mr. Giardina has been playing the field, is the author of five novels and a collection of short stories. He has had productions of his plays with the Manhattan Theatre Club (Scenes from La Vie de Boheme), Playwrights Horizons (Living at Home), in many of the regional theatres including Arena Stage in D.C., Yale Rep and the Long Wharf. Conversation marks his Broadway debut, and my introduction to him. The guiding hand is supplied by Doug Hughes, who has directed a dozen of Broadway’s best plays including Doubt, Outside Mullingar earlier this season, and last season’s revival of Born Yesterday with Nina Ariadne. Hughes has assembled a cast of marvelous actors, but they must have been hiding under a rock for, except for Ms. Maxwell, I hadn’t seen the work of any of them before. Seeing them together in this first rate play is like stumbling upon a chest of buried treasure.
The City of Conversation takes us back to the era of well-made plays, dealing with matters of current interest, written with craft, intelligence, filled with interesting characters. It covers the 30 years between the fall of 1959 and January 2009 in what once would have been three acts, though this play is in two.
All of it happens in the living room of a townhouse in Georgetown, in Washington, DC and concerns itself with the bright and influential matriarch, Hester Ferris, her sister Jean Swift, a widow who lives with her and assists her as she becomes more and more involved as a left wing activist, one of Washington’s more important hostesses. Hester is a force, and she unsuccessfully tries to to undermine the proposed marriage of her son Colin Ferris to his fiancé Anna Fitzgerald. Until Anna enters his life, Colin has always been subject to his mother’s direction, guidance, even control. From the moment Anna and Hester meet, we are aware that despite their willingness to work within the rules of polite society, they will never be close. In time, there will be an irreparable rift and Colin will have to choose between his wife and son on one side, and his mother on the other.
The underbrush on the political scene has never much interested me, but I was fascinated to learn about the amount of influence the carefully planned dinner parties had on the politics of the times in which they occurred. Hostesses, and there were several prominent ones, arranged these gatherings, often with a purpose, bringing together governors, senators, judges, congressmen to discuss current issues at the end of the work day, in the privacy of a beautiful home where they could forget the rhetoric of their public lives, and actually have conversations. This play, in addition to being one of family conflict, tells a good story and its climax has enormous impact even though it involves a very personal choice for its central characters.
We will meet Colin’s son Ethan at 6 years of age and again when he is 27. He will not have seen his grandmother Hester for years due to complications of the plot which have wrought havoc to the family. It is to Mr. Giandina’s credit that he has constructed a solid play in which this personal story enables us to learn so much about, as he puts it, “the passage of time in American political life.” I learned much about the inner workings of these hostesses, as personified through Hester Ferris’ fierce commitment to putting pressure on her own family to help her block the election of Barry Goldwater when he ran against Lyndon Johnson in 1964. There is a central plot point made when she invites the senator from Oklahoma and his wife to dinner in an effort to steer him to her side.
The scene in which she and her daughter in law, also present, handle this confrontation, makes for crackling good theatre. One is reminded of the best of Lillian Hellman and Robert E. Sherwood, to name two of the playwrights who tackled the issues of their days in like manner. Mr. Giardina presents both sides of his arguments vigorously and if this strikes some as speech making, so be it. The scene and others like it are written in a style that is heightened reality. and as played by this band of players, I was totally absorbed, and ultimately moved.
To make this happen Doug Hughes chose a cast of ten terrific actors who bring the writing to life. Jan Maxwell has finally found a leading role that offers her range and she brings to vivid life the attractive and inspired society hostess of her time. By the time the story concludes, she is a frail remnant of that woman, with doubts and confusion and great longing for some of what she sacrificed in order to remain in control until time passed her by. Kristen Bush’s Anna is equally committed to her causes, but she to pays a price for that inflexibility too. Michael Simpson plays Colin well, and doubles as his own grown son Ethan, who has bits of his mother, father and grandmother in him.
John Lee Beatty has set them all in a Georgetown home that reeks of tradition, taste and substance. The house has weathered the 30 year period the play covers more successfully than have those who’ve inhabited it.
The City of Conversation is onstage at the Lincoln Center Theater – Mitzi E. Newhouse, 150 West 65th Street (Between Broadway and Amsterdam) NYC 10023.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.