New York City Theater
"The City of Conversation"
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
If this were a perfect world, customers would be lining up around the block every time Jan Maxwell appears in a show. The actress, equally at home in comedies, dramas and musicals, emits a radiance that shadows any one in her path. So immersed in character is she that her brilliant artistry is achieved with subtlety, naturalness and spontaneity.
In “The City of Conversation,” Anthony Giardina’s absorbing and intelligent new play, she’s Hester Ferris, a glamorous, well-placed, well-respected Georgetown hostess at a time when parties were crucibles of thought and compromise. “We’re an arm of the government,” she explains. Think Kay Graham, Perle Mesta, Pam Harriman, Oatsie Charles and all those other swans holding court and creating an out-of-the-media-spotlight “feast of civility,” where deals could be made.
Stimulating conversation was as much a part of a worthwhile evening as food, drink or cigars. Indeed, the play’s first scene is set in 1979, during the Carter presidency, when compromise was not a dirty word. Although she has harsh things to say about Carter (“President Seatwarmer, the emperor of Malaise”), Hester is staunchly liberal.
In addition to having invited a conservative senator and his wife to dinner, Hester has to contend with unexpected guests: her son Colin and his fiancée, Anna, both fresh from the London School of Economics. In Hester’s wake are her live-in boyfriend, a married senator, and her patient, helpful sister, Jean.
Confrontation is not long in coming, starting with the antipathy Hester feels for the ambitious, arrogant Anna (think Eve Harrington) and her “attention-getting boots.” Things get worse when, in 1987 during the Reagan regime, Hester actively opposes seating right-wing Robert Bork on the Supreme Court, someone Anna supports. The upshot is a shocking threat that evokes gasps from the audience.
Finally, we come to 2009, the night of the Obama inauguration. Family ties have been as strained as the partisanship that will soon engulf the nation. Will they be healed? Splits among author Giardina’s characters are metaphors for the country’s woes.
Although the talk throughout is literate, the emotions are grounded. Under Doug Hughes’ crackling direction, which leaves pauses for those little moments when words will not do, passions run high.
Beth Dixon’s Jean is wonderfully understated as the empathetic referee between antagonists Hester and Anna, the latter played by Kristen Bush with fearless conviction. Although she’s given cogent arguments, Anna is faced with a formidable foe. Not only are the author’s sentiments titled leftwards, even a Supreme Court justice could not get the better of Jan Maxwell.
--David A. Rosenberg
May 16, 2014