When Arena Stage’s Artistic Director Molly Smith saw Anthony Giardina’s The City of Conversation at Lincoln Center, she was eager to have it produced in the nation’s capital. And why not? Washington is the city where these conversations once occurred in the homes of D.C.’s hostesses (think Susan Alsop and Kay Graham) who played a pivotal role in bringing together opposing sides at elegant parties. Back then, after-dinner arguments may have become heated, but the rivals continued to break bread together, even stayed friends. When the play premiered in New York, in June, 2014, Donald Trump’s candidacy was a year away. In the current campaign climate, one can’t imagine Trump, or any of his opponents, remaining civil while sharing a meal. This old social order did exist at one time, however, and our country was the better for it.
Michael Simpson and Margaret Colin
The play opens in the fall of 1979 and is set in the Georgetown townhouse of liberal-leaning Hester Ferris (Margaret Colin). This evening Hester’s guests are Kentucky Senator George Mallonnee (Todd Scofield), and his wife, Carolyn (Jjana Valentiner). On Hester’s agenda are two items: the passage of a Ted Kennedy sponsored bill that would help the Massachusetts senator’s presidential bid, and the career advancement of her live-in lover, Chandler Harris (Tom Wiggin).
Hester’s widowed sister, Jean Swift (Ann McDonough, in an excellent performance) supports her sibling’s causes and helps plan the get togethers, while never attending herself. Throughout the play, Jean serves as a reality check for Hester, often delivering advice and warnings in droll one-liners that never fail to produce laughs.
Hester’s son, Colin (Michael Simpson), arrives home from abroad earlier than expected. Hester is thrilled, not only to see him, but also with the prospect of presenting a united familial front to woo the reluctant senator over to her side. Her plans are dashed, however, when she witnesses her son’s turn to the dark side, egged on by his girlfriend, Anna Fitzgerald (Caroline Hewitt). The two have just graduated from the London School of Economics, and Colin has returned a changed man, rejecting liberal opinions once embraced. Anna dispenses with any social niceties and plunges right in, criticizing everything Hester stands for and Colin once believed in. For her part, Hester looks with distain at Anna’s disheveled appearance and offers to lend her a black cocktail dress for the evening’s festivities. Anna accepts the dress, but not the idea that she should tone down her behavior. Joining the men for brandy and cigars and espousing her conservative views, she soon has the senator and his wife eating out of her hand – not what Hester had hoped for. What really stings, though, is Colin’s strident rejection of his mother’s ideals in front of the senator.
Margaret Colin and Tyler Smallwood
We flash forward for Act Two, finding ourselves smack in the middle of the Reagan years. Hester is now babysitting for her grandson, Ethan (Tyler Smallwood), who playfully bounces a rubber ball around the living room and asks to watch Cinderella on video. (There are jokes about using the VCR – remember those?) Hester’s love for her grandson is genuine and heartfelt. And like with Colin, she can’t resist sharing with Ethan her political views, something her son and Anna constantly complain about. This time around, Hester’s out to defeat Robert Bork’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. She and Jean have fashioned a letter that will run as an advertisement in newspapers where senators are still undecided about how they will vote. When Anna arrives to pick up Ethan, Hester scrambles to hide the letter, anticipating her daughter-in-law’s reaction. In contrast to the affection that Hester displays with Ethan, Anna remains all business. She’s left her bohemian look behind in favor of a severe dark blue suit in keeping with her position at the Justice Department, and she can’t seem to get out of business mode to cuddle her son.
Colin’s appearance has changed, too. His youthful bushy hair is now slicked back, Gordon Gekko style and he sports a ridiculous looking mustache. While Anna is supporting Bork’s nomination to the court, Colin is the one who has everything to lose if the effort fails. The New Hampshire senator Colin works for has gone all out to back Bork and could lose his seat. If the nomination is defeated and Hester’s role revealed, her son could lose his job. Anna finds the letter, confronts Hester, and delivers an ultimatum. Where do Hester’s emotions lie? With her son or with her politics? We learn the answers in the last scene, when we are transported to 2008, the evening of Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Caroline Hewitt, Margaret Colin, and Michael Simpson
Giardina has written an intelligent play with smart dialogue. The zingers oftentimes fly so fast it’s hard to keep up. This cast is up for the challenge. Brooklyn-born Margaret Colin is terrific as Hester, showing fierceness when defending her point of view, but warmth when watching over Ethan. Caroline Hewitt taps into Anna’s raw ambition. Because we all know someone like Anna as a fellow student, co-worker, or boss, the performance grates. Unlike with Hester, we never see a softer side to Anna, a hint of what Colin might have seen in her when he fell in love and married her. Michael Simpson’s Colin seems energized at the beginning of the play when he and Anna are a team confronting Hester. Yet by the second act, Colin seems defeated, resigned to his fate, having traded one strong-willed woman for another. He seems exhausted and beaten down, and Simpson allows us to see his despair.
Staging the play in the Fichlander, brings the audience into the action. The production team from Lincoln Center – Director Doug Hughes, Set Designer John Lee Beatty, Costumer Designer Catherine Zuber, and Lighting Designer Tyler Micoleau – have worked their magic here, too.
While The City of Conversation places politics front and center, the play is really about family. We are expected to teach our children values and share our ideas with them, but at some point those children grow up and develop opinions of their own. One can only imagine the dinnertime conversations going on these days, if not in Georgetown townhouses, at tables around the country as young and old make decisions about the upcoming presidential election.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography:
Opening: Tom Wiggin, Margaret Colin, Caroline Hewitt, Todd Scofield, and Jjana Valentiner
The City of Conversation
1011 Sixth Street, SW