BWW Review: THE CITY OF CONVERSATION Pits Families Against Political Agendas
How often have you disagreed with your parents or siblings about their political views? Certainly in this election year with such polarized candidates running for the highest office, it does not take much to understand how political beliefs can split families and friends apart.
The divisive world of Washington D.C. politics in now center stage at the Bram Goldsmith Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts with Anthony Giardina's searing political comic drama The City of Conversation now playing for a limited run through June 4. Starring Christine Lahti, Jason Ritter and Georgia King in a new production directed by Michael Wilson, The City of Conversation is an inside-the-Beltway play about politics in family-and families in politics-as it delves into the ever-changing tapestry of U.S. Government and the people who shape it at private dinner parties off the senate floor.
In The City of Conversation, spanning 30 years and six presidential administrations, Hester Ferris (Christine Lahti, a powerhouse in a rather frail-looking body) throws high-powered Georgetown dinner parties that can change the course of Washington's politics. The first act is set in 1979 when the upcoming presidential election following the end of the Vietnam War was front and center in the news. But in truth, the public had no real idea on how the manipulations being done behind the scenes would change history.
Hester's high class townhouse is well-represented by scenic designer Jeff Cowie. It is easy to imagine how adversaries who fought it out on the Senate floor would attend her parties and smooth out their differences over drinks and hors d'oeuvres. Projection designer Hana S. Kim introduces both acts (in 1979 and 2009) with images from recent history projected on panels surrounding the set which feature presidents in their best and worst of times addressing the American public, preparing us historically for what is about to transpire.
A devoted Democratic supporter of Ted Kennedy, Hester is floored when her beloved son Colin (Jason Ritter) suddenly turns up with his ambitious Reaganite girlfriend Anna (Georgia King) and their shocking new conservative world view. The fact they both wish to gain headway into Washing6ton politics should come as no surprise to Hester given his early childhood surrounding by politicians. In fact, when they meet George Mallonee (David Selby), the Senator from Kentucky, and his wife Carolyn (Michael Learned), Anna is quick to maneuver her way into working in the conservative politician's office.
Along with her married Senator boyfriend Chandler (handsome Steven Culp), a fact not shared with the media since they never appear in public together (and the internet was still a thing of the future), Hester soon realizes she must soon choose between preserving her family and defending the causes she's spent her whole life fighting for with every ounce of her being. It's a wonder her son could be so different, but then perhaps sending him off to London to study economics has deeply changed his views.
Time moves on via projections and we next see the loving relationship between Hester and her 6-year-old grandson Ethan (Nicholas Oteri) as he tries to distract his grandmother and her sister Jean (Deborah Offner) who has long-handled Hester's domestic needs. Unfortunately, when Ethan and his now-wife Anna disagree strongly with the progressive lessons Hester is teaching their son, they forbid her to continue seeing him. Hester makes the decision to stick with her politics, which causes her to be alienated from her family for years.
Act 2 begins in 2009 when Hester's now 27-year-old grandson (played by Jason Ritter) and his boyfriend Donald Logan (Johnny Ramey) pay a visit to his grandmother's home after not seeing her for more than 20 years. Ultimately knowing acceptance will never happen between them, Hester's best comeback is to remind them it was her doing that got marriage equality passed and she deeply encourages them to marry now that they can. The play ends on a positive note with Hester and Jean donning their now-hated fur coats so they can attend another Washington gathering at a new and upcoming politician's home to test the waters.
While the conflict is certainly relevant and interesting, unfortunately many scenes are directed by Michael Wilson with the actors just standing and talking with little movement, making the subject matter a bit too intellectual, somewhat confusing, and not attention-grabbing for those not interested in listening to long diatribes about politics. But if talking about politics is your thing, by all means see this show!
The City of Conversation continues through June 4, 2016 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in the Bram Goldsmith Theater, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA, 90210. Single tickets run $29 - $110 and may be ordered at the box office, by phone (310) 746-4000 or online at TheWallis.org
Photo Credit: Kevin Parry for The Wallis