In the daring new play about Washington politics and the halcyon days of genteel social hostesses, The City of Conversation, (now playing at Arena Stage) the word “conversation “ is most decidedly a polite euphemism for today’s more applicable words such as “gossip,” “back biting,” and “slander.” Time marches on and the viciousness of people (in this case, powerful people) takes no holiday.
Playwright Anthony Giardina’s deft and scathing play is all too relevant. Go back in a time capsule to yesteryear and the politics were still brutal but at least there was a semblance of “honor among thieves.” In today’s political climate, all we have left are big money influencing everything, sound bites from the media and the most plastic of packaging.
Giardina’s stimulating play is full of many zippy, provocative and topical questions. The theme of political acrimony is universal in that almost everyone has some extended family member who may think about politics in a totally different and radical manner; this makes for complex interpersonal relationships (for example, my brother is much more conservative and reactionary than I am —yet I would take a bullet for him! ).
The stunning Zelda Fichandler Stage (one of several Arena Stage Theaters) highlights the more physical aspects of the play well but esteemed Director Doug Hughes (Tony Award-winning director of the Broadway hit Doubt) has seated some principal actors for too long a spell in stationary spots ——-thus, making it difficult to understand the emotions on an actor’s face when their back is facing you (an all “too-common”: problem with the “theater-in-the-round” model). Initial exposition of the impending themes were set up in a somewhat static, slow-moving first act.
Luckily, after intermission, the rest of the play moved very professionally and briskly with much improved pacing and emotional reciprocity among the actors. The quicksilver shifts of tone in this play from satiric to polemical to subtly comedic, mirror the theme of how the minutiae of daily life’s social and personal rituals are reflected in the political realities and gamesmanship of a once very influential Washington powerbroker and hostess Hester Ferris (the well-known actress Margaret Colin), her conservative son Colin (Michael Simpson) and his conservative fiancée (Caroline Hewitt). Add to the mix a sharply-tongued, utterly practical sister (Ann McDonough) and a conservative Senator and his wife (actors Todd Scofield and Jjana Valentiner).
A large span of historical forces collide from the era of Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush to Obama (with textual flashbacks to the era of Johnson, Nixon, and the socially dynamic period of Kennedy). To avoid spoiler alerts in this play, I cannot divulge anything whatsoever about the immense time swings as young grandson Ethan Ferris (Tyler Smallwood) grows up and enters a new life (as an older man) involving the fine actor Freddie Bennett. Let’s just say that political paradigms do some shifting!
Tensions in the play become more heated (just as in real life—-the Democratic and Republican parties have never really recovered from this rift) with the long confirmation hearings whereby the Democrats garnered the majority of votes to block the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. This historical moment is the axis from which much of the play’s repercussions and reverberations flow.
As the influential hostess Hester Ferris (with a touch of “declining influence” once the Nixon era starts), Margaret Colin is by turns charming, ironic, subtly comedic and ingratiating as the role requires but she lacks the edgy formidable quality that a powerful Georgetown socialite/hostess would possess (alas—many of her line readings were too softly phrased and, thus, inaudible in the large, cavernous Fichandler venue). However, in the final scene, on the night of the Obama’s Inaugural Festivities, actress Colin succeeds quite well in making the aged socialite a moving study in survival amidst the angst.
Standouts in the cast were a marvelous droll and deadpan Ann McDonough as the Sister. Every physical gesture and intonation was expertly timed to achieve ultimate comedic effect.
As Hester’s love interest, Chandler, actor Tom Wiggin had an authoritative command of the stage and a breezy, beguiling manner that was a delight to observe.
Caroline Hewitt’s portrayal of the conservative and precocious upstart Anna Fitzgerald was very finely played —with just the right balance of cunning and self-righteousness.
Lighting Design by Tyler Micoleau was fine –as was the appropriately traditional yet understated elegance of the spare Set Design by the famous Set Designer John Lee Beatty. Sartorial touches were top-notch as exemplified by Costume Designer Catherine Zuber.
The City of Conversation truly embodies the conundrum that is politics in Washington, DC. It is a powerful world yet –also—a somewhat hermetically –sealed universe unto itself.
For a thought-provoking night in the theatre, do not miss Arena Stage’s The City of Conversation.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
The City of Conversation plays through March 6, 2016 at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater’s Fichandler Stage – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.