The City of Conversation fits Arena Stage like a glove. The play itself brims with intelligence, bristles with conflict, and presents the fine art of political discourse in a town where such talk is as common as traffic on the Beltway.
American writer Henry James dubbed Washington the “city of conversation” when he observed there was another culture, hidden from the view of mere mortals, where powerful people could move about with other influential figures to pull strings, make alliances, and get things done. Novelist and playwright Anthony Giardina takes a look at this world within a world for his pointed and ultimately moving play, showing the transition of power not only in the White House but among the foot soldiers who grab the coattails when new administrations take over and old power bases fade to the background.
Starting in the fall of 1979, as Jimmy Carter’s reelection bid is gummed up by the sudden popularity of Ronald Reagan, The City of Conversation is set in one such enclave where political friends can come together on neutral ground: Hester Ferris’ elegant townhouse in Georgetown. Hester’s politics are decidedly liberal, which finds her hobnobbing with the likes of the Kennedys, and hosting dinner parties and cocktail hours for a who’s who of DC players. Educated, cultured, and attractive, Hester is adept at smoothing egos and providing a safe haven for delicate alliances. Margaret Colin, recognizable from high profile film and TV work and a seasoned stage actress, embodies Hester’s sense of control, her wit and her singular focus on being a behind-the-scenes Washington player. Hester is all about glamour and grace and Colin nails both qualities, as well as the moments when those features are put to the test.
Hester is ably assisted by her widowed sister Jean Swift, who serves as a general factotum, arranging the finer details of guest lists and correspondence. Providing a noticiable contrast to Hester, Jean is a wry curmudgeon if there ever was one. Ann McDonough makes a welcome Arena Stage debut returning to the role she originated during the play’s New York premiere in 2014. McDonough makes the most of her appearance; Jean is a woman of few words and the ones she utters are nearly all hilarious.
When the play opens, Hester and Jean are preparing for a dinner party with a Kentucky Senator and his wife to discuss a judicial appointment. A visit, one day early, by Hester’s only son Colin and his willowy girlfriend Anna throws the dinner plans into a minor tempest. As the reason for their early visit is revealed in stages, Hester realizes Colin’s political pendulum has swung away from his upbringing, and he has brought Anna along for the ride.
Hester senses in Anna more than a little ambition (and recognizes a bit of herself), but warns Anna about how things work in “the city of conversation.” “Washington is about boldness,” Hester offers to Anna, “but it has to be couched in layers. People smell ambition. They do. And they defend themselves.” In those few lines, Hester lays out what becomes her mission statement for the rest of the play. Her world is threatened by new political influences – namely the wave of new conservatives who stormed the beachhead when Reagan landed the White House. Anna has only disdain for the Georgetown rules of engagement and the “feast of civility,” as she describes old Washington’s ways. She is willing to use less subtle means to achieve her high goals. Like many liberals of the time, Hester talks about “that washed out actor, Governor Reagan” while Anna and Colin talk of returning to old fashioned values and patriotism under the leadership of Nancy’s husband.
Time passes, battle lines are drawn, and Hester finds herself with a house divided once Colin and Anna become man and wife and enter the fertile and changing Washington of the 1980s. Her allies –her longtime boyfriend and Virginia senator Chandler Harris, and her sister Jean – stay true to Hester and their progressive values. As her role expands to grandmother to Colin and Anna’s child, the stakes are raised even and Hester is faced with the high price of new political ambition and what such desires can cost a family.
Giardina’s script is, to my ears, a sophisticated blend of drama and comedy – smart talk, volatile relationships and even a number of cheap shots (GOP and repressed homosexuality, for example) that keep the dialogue crackling with acerbic wit.
Led by Colin, the rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, including Michael Simpson, also an original cast member of the play from Lincoln Center. Simpson plays Hester’s son Colin – “a boy who got good grades but didn’t have complex thoughts” – and the adult version of his son, Ethan, who makes a pilgrimage to see his grandmother during the inaugural events for Barack Obama in the final scene that is both surprising and moving. Simpson skillfully presents the two distinct characters.
Hewitt holds her own with Colin’s Hester as the calculating Anna – a relationship that echoes the classic film “All about Eve” in more than a passing way. (There is even a barbed line in the script about the young starlet and the seasoned “star.”) Hewitt’s Anna holds her cards close to the chest, so to speak, only to reveal her true colors at key moments which are scintillating and believable.
Todd Scofield strikes a memorable figure as the senator from Kentucky who is impressed with Anna’s skills (and looks), and Jjana Valentiner is memorable as Senator Malonee’s wife, complete with big-1980s hair and think Southern accent that does little to hide the “steel magnolia” underneath.
Rounding out the cast is Tom Wiggin as Chandler, Hester’s beau and political ally, and Freddie Bennett as a young school teacher who comes with Ethan to celebrate Obama’s election and the new hope promised by his administration. Youngster Tyler Smallwood affords himself like an old pro when he appears as Hester’s grandson, Ethan. (Caeden White is understudy for young Ethan.)
Key members of the Lincoln Center creative team are reunited for the Arena Stage production, such as scenic designer John Lee Beatty, providing a setting that looks as if it were lifted from prime Georgetown real estate. The design – and indeed the play itself – works beautifully in the theatre-in-the-round Fichlander Stage. Tyler Micoleau’s lighting enhances Beatty’s open setting, and Catherine Zuber’s costumes allow the audience to follow the timeline of the play, 1979-2009 with ease. Adding further color and historical points of reference, Mark Bennett’s original music and sound design includes sound bites from key points along the way.
THE CITY OF CONVERSATION
January 29 – March 6
Arena Stage at the Mead Center of American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024|
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $49 – $90
Obama’s presidency, no matter which side of his hopey-changey thing you fall, can certainly be characterized as contentious. As the rhetoric among candidates heats up (can it get any more heated?) and the election draws nigh, will the actual “city of conversation” turn back to the living rooms of Georgetown or a trendy bar on Capitol Hill? Or will the discussion and influence fester and boil in the open field of social media, blogs, and our 21st Century equivalents? I imagine the discourse will be divided among the old ways and the new. This play spurred my thoughts and that is what great theatre can do – spark conversation and remind us of the humanity we sometimes lose.
My last impression of Giardina’s excellent play is he presents us with a house divided – Hester’s home – split along political lines which appear to be irreparably damaged. If ever there was an example of theatre holding a mirror up to the way things are, The City of Conversation is a prime example.
The City of Conversation by Anthony Giardina . Director: Doug Hughes . Featuring Margaret Colin, Michael Simpson, Caroline Hewitt, Ann McDonough, Tom Wiggin, Freddie Bennett, Todd Scofield, Jjana Valentiner, Tyler Smallwood, Caeden White . Set design: John Lee Beatty . Lighting design: Tyler Micoleau . Costume design: Catherine Zuber . Original Music and Sound design: Mark Bennett . Wig Designer: Tom Watson . Stage manager: Amber Dickerson . Produced by Arena Stage at the Mead Center of American Theater . Reviewed by Jeff Walker .