|John Aylward, Kristen Bush, Kevin O'Rourke and Jan Maxwell|
The City of Conversation. Photos by Stephanie Berger
By Anthony Giardina
Directed by Doug Hughes
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre
What's It All About?
Politics and how ideologies can sometimes get in the way of what matters, like family relationships. In 1979, Jimmy Carter is president and Colin Ferris (Michael Simpson) brings the girlfriend he met while studying at the London School of Economics home to meet his formidable mother, liberal activist Hester Ferris (a fabulous Jan Maxwell) whose dinner parties are where much of the business of Washington gets conducted in after-dinner talks among the politicos who attend. Turns out Anna (Kristen Bush) isn't intimidated. In fact, she craves political power and wants to know what makes Helen tick. It might even be possible that her attraction to Colin comes from what he can offer in terms of connections.
She contrives for them to arrive at the Georgetown home Helen shares (secretly since he is married) with Chandler Harris (Kevin O'Rourke), senior senator from Virginia, the night she is having Kentucky Sen. George Mallonee (John Aylward) and his wife, Carolyn (Barbara Garrick), over to discuss an important bill. Carolyn and Hester throw sparks, but conservative Anna hits it off with the senator and his wife and lands herself a job.
Flash forward to 1987. Ronald Reagan is president. Republicans Anna and Colin are married and have a son, Ethan (Luke Niehaus), who is the apple of his grandmother's eye. She and her sister, Jean (and excellent Beth Dixon) watch him during the week so his parents can work, -- even though tension often flair as older and younger generations work on opposite sides of the political fence. Anna doesn't want her son influenced -- especially since he is so fond of Hester. When Anna discovers that Hester is working to block the appointment of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, she issues an ultimatum: stop, or lose the privilege of being a part of Ethan's life.
Later, it is 2009 and Barack Obama has just been elected. Ethan (played by Simpson), now grown up and openly gay, comes to visit with his lover, Donald (Phillip James Brannon), who would love to talk to Hester about the dawn of the liberal age for his graduate thesis.
What are the highlights:
- Giardina writes a very good play, full of political savvy, fully developed, interesting characters and humor. Maxwell presents a character far from any other I have seen her portray. She does a wonderful job of aging too. In fact, Hughes directs solid, absorbing performances across the board.
- Dixon is a hoot as the unassuming, succinct Jean. She doesn't waste words, but when she does say something, it counts (and usually brings a laugh). Her love and devotion for her family is evident in every glance and action.
- The set, a multi-level rambling brownstone by John Lee Beatty is beautiful.
- Lovely, elegant period costumes by Catherine Zuber.
- Some of Anna's comments, as a proponent of Reagan's policies, could be sentiments expressed by current-day conservatives. It's alarming in that the country doesn't seem to learn from past mistakes, but reassuring that such comparisons prove that the nation can weather downturns. The play combines past and present seamlessly (commentary about Monica Lewinsky are made even more contemporary by her recent interview with Vanity Fair). An excellent start to the 2014-2015 theater season!
The play unfortunately takes a political side. It would be even more effective if it got out of the way of itself and let the audience decide who the good and bad guys are here. Giardina does such a masterful job of creating the characters, that I dare say it would be possible for those on opposite ends of the political spectrum to come away from the same scene with completely different takes on who is right or wrong in the way they think or act. That would have been more fun -- and a better catalyst for conversation, since that's what the play is about -- than having a particular ideology hammered home, particularly in the third act.
- The City of Communication plays through July 6 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center, 150 west 65th St., NYC. http://lct.org/showMain.htm?id=225
- Runtime: two hours with one intermission
- This play has received an Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award.
Christians might also like to know:
-- God's name taken in vain