Politics, then and now

Anthony Giardina's 'City of Conversation'

4 minute read
A now-extinct species, the Washington hostess: Jan Maxwell in "The City of Conversation." Photo by Stephanie Berger
A now-extinct species, the Washington hostess: Jan Maxwell in "The City of Conversation." Photo by Stephanie Berger

Are you fed up with the political paralysis that plagues our nation’s capital today? Are you weary from the bloody partisan battles that make it impossible for a Republican and a Democrat to shake hands, let alone pass legislation?

If so, there’s an antidote to your disenchantment and frustration. The City of Conversation, the absorbing new drama at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, will take you back to the good old days when members of Congress actually teamed up and got things done — together. Only they didn’t do it by “reaching across the aisle,” as the saying goes (or went). In Anthony Giardina’s play, they do it by reaching across a dinner table, at the home of that now-extinct species called a Washington hostess.

Giardina’s play follows the rise and fall of Hester Ferris (a superb Jan Maxwell), social lioness and reigning doyenne of D. C. dinner parties, over three decades, from the Carter to the Obama administrations. Like her real-life models (Perle Mesta, Gwen Cafritz, Susan Mary Alsop, Pamela Harriman, et al.), Hester is a fictionalized mover and shaker of independent wealth, a liberal elitist Washingtonian who has turned her patrician Georgetown home into the place where power players of opposite sides congregate, converse, cajole, compromise, and move the country forward.

We meet her in Act I at the height of her influence, preparing to entertain a Republican senator from Kentucky and his wife, all in the cause of coaxing along “a little Judiciary Committee thing” together with her partner, a liberal senator named Chandler Harris (played by a smooth Kevin O’Rourke). In short, it’s just another pleasant bipartisan dinner that will end in cigars, cognac, postprandial handshakes, and an amicable forward-thinking agreement.

All might have been business as usual, save for the surprise appearance of Hester’s Republican son Colin (a vulnerable Michael Simpson), who has returned from the London School of Economics with his equally conservative girlfriend Anna (a steely Kristen Bush). They’ve arrived a day earlier than planned and announce that they’re joining the gathering. “Dinner, you have to understand, is always about something,” Colin explains to Anna, their curiosity piqued.

Moreover, to Hester’s alarm, the ambitious Anna says she wants to “observe” the legendary Hester in action. “I think I saw this movie,” Hester quips tartly, “The young faux naïf making up to the aging star.” (The reference is to All About Eve.) By the end of Act I, the upwardly mobile Anna has joined the cigar and cognac klatch and landed herself a job.

At this point, you might relegate The City of Conversation to the ranks of other recent entertaining plays about politics, notably David Mamet’s 2008 satire November (on the Bush presidency) or the 2012 revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, starring James Earl Jones.

The political is personal

But what makes City deeper and more compelling is the intermingling of the political and the personal. The first scene of Act II, set a decade later in the Reagan era, finds Hester babysitting for her grandson Ethan while trying to focus on her current cause, the liberalization of the Supreme Court. She’s in high gear, mobilizing her considerable influence, rallying support to block the candidacy of Robert Bork (Reagan’s archconservative, anti-choice nominee). Meanwhile, her high-profile, connected daughter-in-law, Anna, is an avid Republican and Bork champion. While Colin stands by helplessly, Hester and Anna lock horns on the issue, and Hester finds herself fighting on two fronts, the political and the familial. To add fuel to the fire, Hester expresses her disappointment in her son as a second-rate politician from New Hampshire, eclipsed by his ambitious wife.

Anna delivers an ultimatum — if Hester proceeds to wield her influence, Anna will never allow Hester to see her grandson again. Colin has no choice but to support his wife, and the die is cast. “I’m trying to force change without breaking a single heart,” Hester cries in frustration, but it’s too late.

The final scene of Act Two finds an aged, hardened Hester two decades later, after Obama’s election to the presidency. The Washington hostess is a phenomenon of the past, and so is she. She’s visited by her estranged grandson, Ethan. While Ethan acknowledges his grandmother’s single-minded dedication to great ideals, at the same time he says, ruefully: “You fight for things, but you don’t lose people.”

The City of Conversation joins the ranks of other deeply moving American family plays that conflate the political and the personal. From the Kellers in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947) to the Wyeths in Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities (2011), it’s been dramatized, over and over, that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” That pertains to a family as well as a body of government.

What, When, Where

The City of Conversation, by Anthony Giardina, directed by Doug Hughes, playing through July 6 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater of Lincoln Center Theater, New York. 212-239-6200 or www.lct.org.

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