- Associated Press - Monday, May 5, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - This will sound like a fairy tale, but there was a time in the mid-20th century when politics in Washington, D.C., were conducted with some civility. No matter what disagreements occurred in committee meetings or Congressional debates, political adversaries could still gather for social occasions, chatting together and perhaps even nudging deals forward a little.

Playwright Anthony Giardina explores this fabled time in his new play “The City of Conversation,” in a sharp, intelligent production directed by Doug Hughes that opened Monday night at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.

Using the experiences of one politically-involved Georgetown family over 30 years, Giardina depicts the sharp divide over social issues that hardened America into two rigid political camps. His compelling characters intensely discuss complex political ideals while remaining believable as people during their pitched family battles.

Jan Maxwell gives a lustrous, nuanced and moving performance as Hester Ferris, a liberal-minded political hostess initially seen celebrating the end of the Carter administration in 1979. Hester can’t realize the upcoming election will finish off the era when Georgetown dinner parties could, in her self-satisfied words, “help move a social agenda forward.”

Hester’s insular world starts to come undone when, at her own dinner party, her self-assured, coquettish persuasions are outmatched by her son Colin’s forthright, calculating fiancee, Anna. This ambitious young conservative is given chilly rigidity by Kristen Bush. Hester is further rocked to learn that Colin, (Michael Simpson, who performs admirably as Colin and later, as his own adult son Ethan), has turned to the political right himself.

Giardina’s well-crafted drama next depicts a sharply changed political world through one telling day for Hester’s family in the Reagan era of 1987, including her loving interactions with her 6-year-old grandson, Ethan (a sweet portrayal by Luke Niehaus) and fractious arguments with her son and Anna. The final scene occurs on the night of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, with Ethan’s unexpected arrival at his long-estranged, grandmother’s house.

Hughes, who won a Tony Award for “Doubt,” gets pitch-perfect performances out of the whole cast. Beth Dixon provides gentle, grounding humor as Hester’s widowed sister, Jean. Phillip James Brannon brings an ingratiating warmth to adult Ethan’s partner Donald, an historian fervently studying what Ethan resentfully calls the “ancient battles” fought by his grandmother and his parents.

Kevin O’Rourke is confidently genial as the liberal senator and live-in lover for whom Hester plays the ingratiating hostess. John Aylward and Barbara Garrick are all smooth, Southern wiliness as a Republican Kentucky senator and his wife, who see the political wind starting to favorably blow their way.

Hester and Ethan may have a strained reunion, but at least, harkening back to the title of the play (said to be a phrase Henry James once used to describe Washington, D.C.), they are once again able to talk about their differences.


Online: https://www.lct.org

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