Saturday, May 3, 2014

The City of Conversation ****

The latest offering of Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse is Anthony Giardina's engrossing new political/family drama spanning the period from the Carter years to the Obama inauguration as seen through the household of Hester Ferris (the magnificent Jan Maxwell). Hester, her married lover Chandler (Kevin O'Rourke) and her widowed sister Jean (Beth Dixon) are active in liberal Washington causes. In her Georgetown home, she hosts dinners where politicians of different views are able to meet for unfettered conversation. The arrival home a day earlier than expected of Hester's lone child Colin (Michael Simpson) after studies at the London School of Economics, with a Reaganite girlfriend Anna (Kristen Bush) in tow, is a double surprise for Hester. She and the nakedly ambitious Anna immediately lock horns. A Kentucky senator (John Aylward) and his wife (Barbara Garrick) have been invited to dinner to try to win his vote for a bill to require resignation from segregated country clubs for judicial appointment. When Anna breaks tradition and intrudes on the men's after-dinner conversation, Hester's plans are thwarted. Eight years later, Colin is working for a Republican senator and wife Anna has a job in Reagan's Justice Department. Both are working hard to assure Robert Bork's appointment to the Supreme Court. Hester takes care of their son Ethan (Luke Niehaus) during the day and tries to subvert his parents' conservative influence. Despite her promise to her son not to interfere, Hester is actively campaigning against Bork. When Anna finds out, she presents Hester with a terrible choice. How that works out is revealed in the final scene, set on the night of Obama's first inauguration. A new character, Donald (Phillip James Brannon), a black graduate student of American political history, appears in that scene. I won't give any more away. The play has its problems. Some of the relationships, e.g. between Hester and Chandler and between Hester and Jean, are underdeveloped. Its depiction of the difficulties in balancing the political and the personal is a bit extreme. Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to listen to intelligent, often witty conversation about matters of substance. The play provides a marvelous role for Maxwell and she makes the most of it. The rest of the cast are fine too. John Lee Beatty's set and Catherine Zuber's costumes establish the right tone. Director Doug Hughes brings out the play's strengths. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including intermission.

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