Review Roundup: Lincoln Center Theater's THE CITY OF CONVERSATION

Lincoln Center Theater's production of THE CITY OF CONVERSATION, a new play by Anthony Giardina, directed by Doug Hughes, just opened at the Mitzi E. Newhouse (150 West 65th Street). THE CITY OF CONVERSATION features John Aylward, Phillip James Brannon, Kristen Bush, Beth Dixon, Barbara Garrick, Jan Maxwell, Luke Niehaus, Kevin O'Rourke and Michael Simpson.

Henry James once described Washington D.C. as "the city of conversation." THE CITY OF CONVERSATION, tells the story of political hostess Hester Ferris (played by Jan Maxwell), a behind the scenes mover and shaker in the nation's capital, and of the political gains and personal losses that her choices inflict on her family over a period of 30 years, from the waning days of the Carter administration to the beginning of the Obama presidency.

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Charles Isherwood, New York Times: Hester Ferris, the social lioness played by the marvelous Jan Maxwell in the terrific new play "The City of Conversation," by Anthony Giardina, knows a fellow feline when she sees one. When the pert young woman who has arrived in Hester's plush Georgetown living room asks innocuously if she can observe as Hester prepares for the power-player dinner party she is hosting that evening, Hester turns on her a glare both amused and assessing.

Jennifer Farrar, Associated Press: Giardina's well-crafted drama next depicts a sharply changed political world through one telling day for Hester's family in the Reagan era of 1987, including her loving interactions with her 6-year-old grandson, Ethan (a sweet portrayal by Luke Niehaus) and fractious arguments with her son and Anna. The final scene occurs on the night of President Barack Obama's inauguration, with Ethan's unexpected arrival at his long-estranged, grandmother's house.

Marilyn Stasio, Variety: Two gripping political dramas in the same season? How positively civilized. Bryan Cranston's rip-roaring portrayal of LBJ in "All the Way" epitomizes Washington power politics in play on the highest level of government. In what might be a companion piece, "The City of Conversation," penned by Anthony Giardina and starring Jan Maxwell, presents a peek at the political hostesses who pull the strings behind the scenes. Giardina's homage to a lineage of great Georgetown ladies from Perle Mesta to Pamela Harriman is also an elegy for that bygone era before partisan politics took all the fun out of the party.

Joe Dziemianowicz, Daily News: Doug Hughes' very fine staging and cast show off the play to its best advantage - though there are issues. Hester's backstory and relationship with Jean could use fleshing out. And there are faint but unmistakable whiffs of didacticism and sentimentality. But those flaws are outweighed by his script's intelligence and fluidity.

Linda Winer, Newsday: Where "All the Way," starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ, shows us '60s lawmaking within the bubble of the White House and Congress, "City of Conversation" goes into one of history's equally significant sociopolitical bubbles. How good to be reminded of a time when today's struggles over gay rights, racism and abortion were shaped by a more personal, intimate kind of backroom politics.

Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly: American politics has become a win-at-any-cost blood sport, with no sense of civility. But in Anthony Giardina's pointed and provocative new drama,The City of Conversation, it's the women who prove the most ruthless in advancing their agendas - and bear the greatest personal costs for their ideological intransigence.

Steven Suskin, Huffington Post: The play is written in three scenes, each anchored to an historic and specific political moment. Act One starts with Jimmy Carter's "Malaise" speech, and centers upon a Senate vote to force federal judges to resign from all-white country clubs. Hester and her live-in boyfriend, a married Senator from Virginia (Kevin O'Rourke), try to convince a Kentucky Republican to sign on. Hester's newly-arrived future daughter-in-law Anna (Kristen Bush) schemes like a little fox to upend the evening, on political grounds. "I think I saw this movie," says Hester, making a joking reference to All About Eve. But it is no joke, as it turns out.

Jesse Green, Vulture: It's bad enough that the character you're meant to sympathize with is only marginally less repellent than the one you're supposed to disdain; there's little even the estimable Jan Maxwell can do to make something coherent from Hester's contrivances. (The rest of the cast, save Beth Dixon as Hester's sister, fare worse, under Doug Hughes's muddled direction.) In the end, the political story sinks with the family drama, for how much credence can we put in Hester's dream of conviviality when she says things to Anna - by now her daughter-in-law - like "You will bring this country down out of smug ignorance"? (What she says to Colin is even worse.) Instead of a modern take on a Lillian Hellman drama, which might have been the playwright's aim, we get a play filled with raging Lillian Hellmans, vile and insecure. Perle Mesta would have cut them all.

Helen Shaw, TimeOut NY: I assume that Lincoln Center chose Anthony Giardina's inert Washington drama The City of Conversation hoping that Other Desert Cities lightning would strike again. The formula's familiar: pro-lefty pandering multiplied by tortured family dynamics plus showy female roles. The word city is even in the title. The variables this time illustrate our increasing partisan divide: Jan Maxwell plays liberal Georgetown hostess Hester, whose son, Colin (Michael Simpson), brings home fresh-faced Reaganite Anna (wooden Kristen Bush). Morning in America will mean twilight for Hester's family, unless a third, Obama-era act can offer hope.

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