As Washington goes into a melodramatic but depressing meltdown thanks to the talk-radio influenced intransigence of the right and ineptitude of the left-center, New York theatre has offered three nostalgic looks at a past D.C. THE COLUMNIST gave us a portrait of the power-broking journalist Joseph Alsop, ALL THE WAY depicted Lyndon Johnson's machinations to assure a victory for the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, and Anthony Giardina's CITY OF CONVERSATION, now at the Mitzi Newhouse, dramatizes the end of civilized political discourse that paralleled the rise of the right in American politics. The play begins in 1979, but the seeds of the destruction of civilized politics could be seen at the 1964 Republican National Convention. All three plays involve gay politics: Alsops's closeted homosexuality is a crucial element of THE COLUMNIST; the arrest of Johnson's close friend and trusted aide Sherman Adams plays an important role in ALL THE WAY, and an interracial gay marriage is seen by the leading character as the ultimate triumph of liberalism in CITY OF CONVERSATION. In the style of classic American drama, Giardina combines national and domestic politics. If the mixture doesn't always work, CITY OF CONVERSATION is still a lively, absorbing play, the best written of these three political dramas.
The central conflict in CITY OF CONVERSATION is between two women on different ends of the political spectrum. In 1979, when the play begins, Hester Ferris (the magnificent Jan Maxwell), is a Washington player in the only way a woman could be a player -- she is, as Irving Berlin's musical CALL ME MADAM about another such woman calls herself, "The Hostess with the Mostess." She throws dinner parties in which opposing politicians can find compromise. Things aren't what they used to be because this is Washington under the Carter presidency and the Carters are not part of Hester's world. It's also the end of liberal democratic ascendancy, the eve of Reagan's presidency. In Hester's Washington, political opponents drink and negotiate together at Georgetown parties. Everyone is convivial because everyone belongs to the same political class -- or pretends to. Hannah looks down on folks from benighted states like Kentucky, but sings the praises of the Bluegrass State in front of a Kentucky Republican so that her married boyfriend, Senator Chandler Harris (Kevin O'Rourke), can make a deal that will further his career. The issue at hand at this party is a bill mandating that federal judges give up membership in segregated country clubs. There's an old-fashioned decorum to these parties. The ladies charm at dinner, but afterwards, the men retire to brandy, cigars and wheeling and dealing apart from the women. The women have their own hierarchies. Some wives belong to a book club to try to fit into sophisticated living rooms like Hester's. Hester's constant companion is her widowed sister Jean (Beth Dixon) who never complains about being treated more as a servant than a sister.
Enter Anna Fitzgerald (Kristen Bush), the fiancé of Hester's son Colin (Michael Simpson). Anna first deals amicably with Hester's not-so-subtle disdain at her clothes, but the disdain is built out of an immediate mistrust. Hester senses rightly that Anna is a political Eve Harrington who will be briefly sycophantic but will soon show her claws. She's right. After dinner, Anna breaks protocol by joining the men for brandy and cigars. She has an agenda and is not about to follow social conventions she disdains. On the eve of Reagan's election, Anna is the new ruthless conservative who despises the old political elite but doesn't see that she wants to be in that exclusive group. Anna preaches the kind of right wing populism that will propel Reagan into office. The liberal elite -- folks like Hester -- are the foe to be vanquished. Colin, smitten with Anna but without her brilliance or her ruthlessness, sides with his fiancé. By the end of the party, thanks to Anna, Hester and Chandler have lost a key vote in the Senate and Anna has a job of the staff of the Kentucky Republican. Political and family lines are drawn. Hester and Anna's loathing of each other is clear and Colin is in the middle.
Act Two takes place in 1979 during the battle over the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. The conservatives lost that one, but later gave us the ultra-reactionary Antonin Scalia who is almost as horrible as Bork. The Bork battle is one of the last crises in the eight year Reagan administration before less conservative voices briefly prevail. Of course Anna and Colin have staked their careers on Bork's appointment and Hester is campaigning against it. Anna is a total Reaganite who sees Oliver North as an American hero -- how intelligent is a person who actually believes the iconography manufactured by the Reagan administration? The political battle between Hester and her daughter-in-law and son leads to a permanent family split. The final scene takes place on the night of Obama's inauguration, which seemed briefly to be the triumph of liberalism (we now know better). For the first time in twenty years, Hester, now a frail old lady on the margins of Washington society, is reunited with her grandson, a brilliant inner city schoolteacher and political activist, a gay man with an African-American boyfriend.
On the way out of the theatre, my husband said, "That was a real 'well-made' play." In a sense he was right. The "well-made play" was the template for great and not-so-great nineteenth century drama. It gave us hacks like Scribe and Pinero, but also great writers like Ibsen and Shaw. The well made play combined political and domestic drama and usually centered on the role of women. It used all the tools of realistic drama, particularly masterful use of props. The use of a letter in Act Two of CITY OF CONVERSATION is a perfect example of this kind of dramaturgy. I'm a fan of good examples of this kind of playwriting. Giardina knows how to write long scenes the crackle with excitement. Unlike George Bernard Shaw, he doesn't fully get inside the heads of his political villains. It's clear that he is on Hester's side, though she is far from flawless. Hester is a snob who is totally convinced of the rightness of her views and her way of life. Only a right wing monster like Anne Coulter could find anything sympathetic in Anna. In the age of feminism, how could a woman support Robert Bork? Colin's politics seems to be totally a response to the women around him. He's a conservative in reaction to his mother and because of Anna's influence.
This well-written play has been given a thrilling production. Jan Maxwell is terrific throughout. It's the performance of her distinguished career. Kristen Bush is excellent in the Eve Harrington role. It's clear that her political views are built on resentment and a kind of reverse snobbery. The climactic conflict between these tough, ruthless women is great theatre. Michael Simpson plays both Hester's son Colin and her grown-up grandson. Son Colin is a tricky role. He knows he isn't as ruthless or ambitious as his mother or his wife and that he has to take sides. It's always difficult to play a weak character who stands between two powerful antagonists, but Simpson holds his own and makes us feel for Colin. At first, his "gay" mannerisms as the grandson are a bit over the top, but we soon see that part of that is nervousness at seeing his grandmother for the first time in twenty years. Much of what he goes through in the final scene is unspoken and Simpson masterfully shows us Ethan's mixed feelings. Kudos also to Beth Dixon as Hester's tireless, constantly supportive sister. Doug Hughes has staged the play well in that problematic space. We were way over on the side of that little amphitheater and never felt left out. He has also given the play the right tone and pace.
It was interesting to see this play on the night after the announcement of Eric Cantor's defeat in Virginia. As we wonder just how far right the Republican party can go and how thoroughly they will stop the business of government, this play about the end of civilized political discourse seemed both timely and scary.
CITY OF CONVERSATION. Lincoln Center Theatre Mitzi Newhouse Theatre. June 12, 2014.