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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE CITY OF CONVERSATION
at the Mitzi E. Newhouse

BELTWAY BOMBAST
By BRIAN SCOTT LIPTON

  John Aylward, Kristen Bush, Kevin O‚ÄôRourke and Jan Maxwell/ Ph: Stephanie Berger

People definitely talk in Anthony Giardina’s compelling new play The City of Conversation, now debuting at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. They also scream, cajole, flatter, insult and make ultimatums. All of which is politics as usual in Washington, D.C., the play’s setting. But we never see a congressional chamber or Senate office, since all that chatter takes place in the stately living room (stunningly designed by John Lee Beatty) of Democratic society hostess Hester Ferris (the extraordinarily gifted Jan Maxwell).

More to the point, most of the words that are exchanged, heated and otherwise, are spoken by Hester, her milquetoast son Colin (Michael Simpson), and Anna Fitzgerald (a bristly, brittle Kristen Bush), the highly ambitious, politically conservative young woman he brings home from London in 1979 and eventually marries (and divorces) over the play’s 30-year timespan.

While she suspects Anna might be a passing fancy, nothing shocks Hester more than to find her now-grown son having moved to the other side of the political spectrum, having fought so hard to indoctrinate him in the ways of die-hard 1960s liberalism. And while she manages to forgive him for helping Anna sabotage an important dinner with southern Senator George Mallonee (a very effective John Aylward) and his smarter-than-she-seems wife Carolyn (a sublime Barbara Garrick), Colin and Anna prove far less benevolent a decade later.

When Hester refuses to put the political ahead of the personal while trying to stop Robert Bork from becoming a Supreme Court justice, she is faced with the permanent loss of contact with young grandson Ethan (Luke Niehaus). And, unsurprisingly, even though Hester’s steadfast sister Jean (the superb Beth Dixon) gives her a way out, Hester sticks to her unfailing, unmovable sense of right and wrong, believing the inevitable consequences to be unfathomable. In her world, people may not truly forgive or even forget, but they play the game, move on and live to fight another day.

I know families have stopped speaking over far sillier things than abortion rights or betrayals of promises, but Giardina raising the stakes to such a high level still strikes me as a bit forced. And since what Colin is probably really mad at is what he sees as parental neglect, it might also help if we had a more objective, or at least fuller, picture of Colin’s supposedly unhappy upbringing than what we hear in his constant self-pity party.

Moreover, although Hester’s righteousness may be a tad hard to swallow at times, Giardina paints her with far more humanity than he does Anna, who should practically have the numbers 666 engraved on her forehead. (Given that we’re in Georgetown, I couldn’t help now and then but think of The Exorcist.)

The fine director Doug Hughes shapes the material well, never letting the work drown in its own talkiness. But I wish he had chosen a stronger actor than Simpson, who simply makes this essential if somewhat boring character even more boring. (On the plus side, Niehaus is one of the less obnoxious tots currently on the New York stage.)

Still, Maxwell is, as always, any playwright's (or director’s) best weapon. Her combination of elegance, backhanded charm and razor-sharp wit in the first scene, especially when she wields it against the faux-naif Anna, is a wonder to behold. She’s even more breathtaking in the Bork section, maternal with Ethan one moment, playful with longtime lover Chandler Harris (Kevin O’Rourke) the next, and then alternately quasi-sympathetic and downright furious with Anna. Had fire come out her mouth and horns appeared atop her head, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

And yet, Maxwell is maybe most impressive in the show’s final section, set on the night on Barack Obama’s inauguration, when a now-grown Ethan makes a surprise visit to the house he barely with remembers – along with his African-American boyfriend Donald (Philip James Brannon). Stooped and aged beyond her years, Hester is physically a shadow of her former self. But not only is the steel still there, so is the hard-won knowledge that the political triumph she longed for was worth her personal sacrifices.

That Giardina then insists on pasting on a happy (and not entirely credible) ending is to be expected in this commercial climate. But I would have found this conversation more stimulating had he resisted the temptation.

 


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