Shows Worth Seeing:
The City of Conversation
By Anthony Giardina
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
150 W. 65th St.
Given the famous resistance of American audiences to explicit politics (Tony Kushner once quipped that Americans were “allergic to politics in the theater”), it’s remarkable that Anthony Giardina’s play is as enjoyable as it is. Intelligence and perceptiveness we almost take for granted, because so many intelligent and perceptive political plays disappear without a trace in the United States of Amnesia. This one, I suspect, has legs. I even found myself cautiously hoping a slew of regional productions would follow this Lincoln Center run, preferably in red states where discussions might grow heated.
The City of Conversation’s central character is a wealthy, well-connected Washington hostess named Hester Ferris, played with stunning acuity and vigor by Jan Maxwell. For a generation spanning the Kennedy and Carter administrations Hester has seen herself as an important behind-the-scenes Democratic operator, able to affect legislation simply by assembling politicians in a friendly and elegant setting where they can converse graciously and privately. She has come to believe that homes like hers are where the real business of government is done. That civilized and somewhat elitist world-view starts to unravel when her son arrives one day in 1979, fresh from the London School of Economics, and crashes one of her parties with his sharp-elbowed, ambitious, young Reaganite girlfriend. The rest of the play follows Hester and the young couple over the next 30 years, using their experiences to map the gradual deterioration and polarization of American political discourse.
Right-leaning theatergoers will no doubt find this play slanted, but I imagine they will also enjoy picking apart its arguments and characterizations. Giardina has turned the difficult trick of cleverly sidestepping the aforementioned allergy by disguising a hard-nosed political debate as a domestic drama. America once had many playwrights interested in working this magic, now it has very few, and we should celebrate the ambition when we see it.