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The City of Conversation

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere

Kristen Bush and Jan Maxwell
Photo by Stephanie Berger.
A memorable phrase coined by Henry James to describe Washington, D.C. is an apt title for Anthony Giardina's The City of Conversation, now receiving its world premiere production by Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse. This is an exceptionally talky play, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Although it's about an hour shorter than Robert Schenkkan's All the Way, Giardina's work is chock full of incidents and discussion on a fraught subject: What happens when our loved ones, even members of our own family, come to hold political beliefs that are way out of line with our own?

The central character here is Hester Ferris, a remarkable woman who plays hostess to some of the biggest names in politics. The first of the play's two acts is set in 1979, about halfway through Jimmy Carter's presidency. These are good times for Hester, a liberal Democrat who lives in Georgetown with her significant other, Chandler (Kevin O'Rourke), and her sister, Jean (Beth Dixon). All seems well until Hester's son Colin (Michael Simpson) returns home from the London School of Economics with his new girlfriend, Anna (Kristen Bush), and both start making noises that indicate they're moving over to The Dark Side.

Sure enough, in the first scene of Act II, we see that Colin and Anna (now married) have become staunchly conservative Republicans. It's 1987, and the big issue is Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan. This causes a huge rift between Bork opponent Hester and Bork supporters Colin and Anna, who are clearly in separate camps when it comes to such hot-button issues as abortion, gay rights, racism in America —well, you get the picture.

Unfortunately, this pivotal section of the play exhibits a major flaw in the writing: We see and hear Hester trying to effectively brainwash her six-year-old grandson, Ethan, in order to indoctrinate him with her own opinions on politics in general and Bork in particular. Incredible as this action may sound in itself, the boy's parents' response to it challenges the willing suspension of disbelief even further. (If Ethan were a teenager, at least, all of this would make a lot more sense, and Hester wouldn't suddenly appear so unsympathetic in her doggedness.)

There are several other sloppy moments in the script, as when two of the characters have a full-voice, passionate conversation about a third who's just in the other room, yet they don't expect to be overheard. Giardina also includes a couple of obvious, vulgar jokes that are beneath him, the actors, and the audience; one of these involves Bill Clinton, and I'll bet you can guess what it is just from knowing that much.

Even when the going gets rough, Maxwell helps save the day. She offers a superb performance as Hester, effortlessly hitting every color in the emotional spectrum at just the right time, and she undergoes a breathtaking physical transformation for the final scene, set at the time of Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009. A fellow seated behind me gave her a loud "Bravo!" during the curtain call, and he was absolutely right (except for the last vowel). Kristen Bush is a more than worthy opponent as Anna. Michael Simpson as Colin is somewhat shaky at the start, but he grows into the role as the play progresses and the character becomes more mature, in age if not in thought. Young Luke Niehaus is wonderfully natural as Ethan.

Amidst all of the play's angst, Beth Dixon and Kevin O'Rourke are warm and engaging as Jean and Chandler, even if the latter part is somewhat underwritten. John Aylward and Barbara Garrick bring a fine sense of authenticity to the roles of a Senator from Kentucky and his wife. Phillip James Brannon makes a strong impression as Donald Logan, a character who doesn't appear until the final scene. (To say more would constitute a spoiler.)

The production is well directed by Doug Hughes in one of his better efforts. John Lee Beatty's set design for the living room of Hester's home is gorgeously detailed -- no surprise there. Likewise, Catherine Zuber's costumes and Tyler Micoleau's lighting are up to these artists' usual high standard.

Don't go to The City of Conversation expecting flawless dramaturgy. But if you're looking for a play that provides great food for thought, performed by a company led by one of the finest stage actresses of our time, the Mitzi E. Newhouse is where to find it.

The City of Conversation
Through June 22
Mitzi E. NewhouseTheatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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