The City of Conversation
Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
Bram Goldsmith Theatre at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
Through June 4
In one way, The City of Conversation can be seen as playwright Anthony Giardina’s paean to the bygone politics of 20th century America —in retrospect a fairer and far less brutal game than the one played today. Giardina’s inspiration was a book by Sidney Blumenthal, The Ruins of Georgetown, which reminisced about social life in Washington D.C. in the 1950s and 1960s, when political players from both sides of the aisle would put aside their differences on some evenings, and gather for dinner, a drink and a schmooze. It was a humanizing convention that leavened political antagonism and kept personal animosities at bay. And it no longer exists today.
The action takes places over three decades — from the tail end of the Carter Administration and the rise of Ronald Reagan and his right-wing supporters in 1979 to the feel-good election of Barack Obama 30 years later. Hester (Christine Lahti), the drama’s pivotal character, is a D.C. socialite and a behind–the–scenes player; she’s a person of principle fighting the good fight (if you’re a progressive, that’s how you’ll see it) against the forces of reaction.
Hester’s comfortable world begins to crumble when her long-haired son Colin (Jason Ritter) arrives from London accompanied by his girlfriend Anna (Georgia King), in boots and mini-skirt. Both young people are recent graduates of the London School of Economics and imbued (first impressions aside) with neo-conservative attitudes and a resurgent rightwing perspective. The ambitious Anna soon sheds her naïf façade and charms her way into an internship with a Kentucky Senator named Mallobee (David Selby), a good old boy who makes no bones about exploiting constituents’ nostalgia to win votes, and who opposes a current bill to ban judges from belonging to all-white country clubs. The crushing blow for Hester comes after an altercation with her son, and her realization that he shares Anna’s contempt for all the post-Kennedy “liberal” ideals she has fought for over the years.
When Act 2 opens, ten years have passed; Colin and Anna are both entrenched Republican operatives, while Hester’s life has been enriched by spending time with her beloved 6-year-old grandson, Ethan (Nicholas Oteri). The play’s central dramatic event occurs here in a confrontation between Anna and Hester over Hester’s actions in opposing Robert Bork for the Supreme Court, with Hester’s relationship with Ethan held as ransom.
Directed by Michael Wilson, with a sterling scenic design by Jeff Cowie and projections by Hana Sooyeon Kim that furnish a heart-thumping historical perspective, The City of Conversation is a play this critic wanted to like, but didn’t. The first act pokes along, filled with drawing room exposition and tired riffs, such as Hester and her sister Jean’s (Deborah Offner) makeover of the initially scruffy Anna. Act 2, far more inherently involving, tips over into melodrama, and its final scene, meant to be heart-wrenching, is awkward and contrived.
The story might have played out successfully had the performances been of uniform quality. As the poised, intelligent and principled Hester, Lahti serves the story well; the play’s finest moments are when her character refuses to compromise on what she believes. But neither King as Anna nor Ritter as Colin exude presence or conviction — they are neither interesting nor persuasive. It’s to Lahti’s credit she comes off as well as she does in her scenes with them.
Everyone else brings something to the table. Selby livens things up as the pontificating senator, and Steven Culp is attractive and appealing as his liberal colleague and Hester’s longtime lover. Lending solid support are Offner as Hester’s sister and helpmate; Michael Learned as Mrs. Mallonee, a Southern lady you wouldn’t want to mess with; and Oteri as Hester’s winning grandson.
Bram Goldsmith Theatre at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat. 3 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m.; through June 4. (310) 746-4000, or www.thewallis.org. Running time: 2 hours and 5 minutes with a 15 minute intermission