Three decades of American politics get personal in Anthony Giardina’s fascinating hot-button family drama The City Of Conversation, now getting an impressive, star-studded West Coast Premiere at the Wallis Annenberg Center For The Performing Arts under Michael Wilson’s incisive direction.
A luminous Christine Lahti stars as 50something Hester Ferris, not so long ago one of the capital’s hostesses “with the mostess,” though by 1979 the politically diverse mixers that once inspired Henry James to dub Washington “the city of conversation” seem largely a thing of the past, especially now that a certain “washed-up movie star governor” has set his sights on the presidency with promises to make an increasingly polarized America “great again” (Sound familiar?)
Still, the indomitable Hester is far from down and out, tonight’s Georgetown soiree pitting her against a conservative Kentucky senator and his steely wife (David Selby and Michael Learned as George and Carolyn Malonee), with backup provided by Hester’s married lover Senator Chandler Harris (Steven Culp) and Hester’s sister Jean (Deborah Offner), her longtime sidekick and all-around gofer.
The evening’s gathering of DC high rollers, important though it may be to Hester, serves primarily as playwright Giardina’s modus operandi to introduce a pair of young barbarians at Hester’s gate—her shaggy-haired mid-20s son Colin (Jason Ritter) and his Minnesota-blonde fiancée Anna (Georgia King)—just returned from the London School Of Economics where Colin played academic second fiddle to a sharper but not-so-sweet sweetheart who shares with him, horrors of horrors, politics of a decidedly conservative bent.
Despite her farm-girl prettiness, it soon becomes clear that Anna is hard-edged, hard-hearted, and hardly willing to settle for anything less than a power position in right-wing Washington politics, something that does not sit at all well with her future mother-in-law.
And as if the contentious politics that ended up bringing down Jimmy Carter weren’t already bad enough, just wait till the 1987 confirmation hearings for Reagan Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork pit mother against daughter-in-law in a duel to the death, with Hester’s adored six-year-old grandson Ethan (Nicholas Oteri) an innocent pawn in a game of thrones that reveals Anna at her most ruthless.
With this year’s pre-convention campaigns once again featuring opposite sides of the political fence unable to engage in civil conversation, or even the kind of social interchange that once made Hester Ferris’s Georgetown townhouse the place to be, The City Of Conversation could scarcely be making a more timely West Coast debut at the Wallis.
Still, it is the personal behind the political that makes Giardina’s play the theatrical equivalent of a page-turner, with Lahti not only bringing with her considerable star power but delivering one humdinger of a star turn as Hester, supported by an ensemble of film and TV favorites with bona fide stage chops.
Culp, Learned, Offner, and Selby all do finely delineated work as well, as do Johnny Ramey and Oteri, the former in a welcome eleventh hour appearance opposite Ritter, the latter as adorable as a five-year-old can be.
Still, it’s Lahti’s fierce and fabulous Hester and King’s utterly sensational ice-cold conniver of an Anna that will have Wallis audiences raving, the native Brit scoring bonus points for her pitch-perfect American accent. (Only the 85-year-old Hester could benefit from more believable aging in voice and posture).
Scenic designer Jeff Cowie surrounds Hester’s elegant, spectacularly detailed Georgetown living room with a great big proscenium arch on which Hana Sooyeon Kim’s breathtaking projections provide a lightning-fast crash course in thirty years of American history.
David C. Woolard’s elegant, period-perfect array of costumes and Carol F. Doran’s equally spot-on hair, wig, and makeup design are matched in excellence by Lap Chi Chu’s lighting and John Gromada’s sound, adding up to a production design that outdoes Broadway’s best.
Beth Lipari has cast The City Of Conversation’s ensemble of Los Angeles-based actors. J.K. Musser is associate director/dramaturg. Robert Bennett is production stage manager and Jereme Kyle Lewis is assistant stage manager.
Rarely has the axiom, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” proven truer than in The City Of Conversation, a play and production certain to get folks conversing in Beverly Hills and beyond.
Bram Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills.
May 20, 2016
Photos: Kevin Parry