Friday, May 9, 2014

Off-Broadway Theater Review: The City of Conversation with Jan Maxwell

John Aylward, Kristen Bush, Kevin O'Rourke and Jan Maxwell
The City of Conversation. Photos by Stephanie Berger
The City of Conversation
By Anthony Giardina
Directed by Doug Hughes
Lincoln Center
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!
What Are The Lowlights?
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.

More Information:
  • The City of Communication plays through July 6 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center, 150 west 65th St., NYC.
  • 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
-- Language

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play concept, "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Intensive and other training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women. She is a former vice preseint and voting member of The Drama Desk.

She is a freelance writer and playwright (member Dramatists Guild of America). She is a member if the The Outer Critics Circle (event manager for the annual awards ceremony), The American Theater Critics Association, The League of Professional Theatre Women and the Drama League. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She also is a member of the Episcopal Actors' Guild, the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts and The O'Neill Theatre Center..

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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