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BWW REVIEWS: Maxwell Should Be The Talk Of The Town for THE CITY OF CONVERSATION

To say that Jan Maxwell is giving one of the most memorable performances of the 2014-15 theatre season before the major awards for the 2013-14 season are even handed out may be jumping the gun a bit, but the extraordinarily versatile stage actor's skill is impeccably displayed in a role that fits her as perfectly as the chic red cocktail number designer Catherine Zuber has her wearing in the first act of The City of Conversation.

Jan Maxwell (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

Anthony Giardina's drama of family politics is an intelligent one, but Maxwell, who is supported by a fine company in director Doug Hugh's smart and tense production, elevates the evening into something special.

The title is taken from Henry James' description of Washington D.C., a town where political rivals have been known to make nice (and make policy) over after-dinner drinks and cigars.

Maxwell plays the elegant, clever and politically savvy Hester Ferris, a left-winger of privilege who is an expert in the field of influence. Casual gatherings at her Georgetown townhouse (sumptuously laid out by designer John Lee Beatty) have been known to affect the lives of people from Selma to Christopher Street.

The first act is set in 1979, when Hester and her widowed sister, Jean (a nicely dry Beth Dixon), are hoping to save the country from the malaise of the Jimmy Carter administration by helping Ted Kennedy thwart his re-election bid by nabbing the Democratic nomination.

On the afternoon before she's hosting a Republican senator (John Aylward as an old-school Kentucky politico) and his wife (proudly supportive Barbara Garrick) for dinner, her son, Colin (Michael Simpson) arrives home from London School of Economics with his girlfriend Anna (Kristen Bush).

John Aylward, Kristen Bush, Kevin O'Rourke and Jan Maxwell
(Photo: Stephanie Berger)

Colin and Anna are of the generation that rebelled against their liberal, government-protesting parents by embracing the patriotic conservatism of Ronald Regan.

The playwright's reference to All About Eve isn't necessary to catch where this is going. While it becomes evident that Colin is a competent, but not especially brilliant public servant, Anna is a younger, right-wing version of Hester and uses the gathering to easily wrangle up a job with the senator.

The second act starts in 1987, toward the end of Regan's second term. Colin and Anna are married and have a six-year-old son, Ethan (Luke Niehaus), who spends weekdays under grandma's care. Hester adores Ethan, but her tendency to educate him in the ways of liberal politics is a sore point with his parents.

But the point that causes the severe damage is centered on the president's nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Anna insists that Hester's effort to keep Bork from being voted in will seriously hurt Ethan's career. Hester is accustomed to a Washington where political rivals take nothing personally and can be the best of pals outside the arena, but Anna threatens horrific blackmail to get her mother-in-law to stop making waves and easily convinces Colin to support her decision.

In the final scene, set on the day of Barack Obama's inauguration, we see how the events of the previous scene have affected the family over the past twenty-two years.

Aging thirty years from lights up to curtain calls, Maxwell's transformations are stunning in detail and perfectly fluid. Hester's passion for her causes and devotion to her son and grandson are so finely realized that the anguish she feels when forced to choose one over the other is completely believable.

Though the playwright makes a fine effort to allow political views to be argued even-handedly, there's no doubt where his sympathy leans when it comes to family issues. Bush admirably plays Anna with a passionate belief in her values, but the character's blunt way of expressing herself is no match for Hester's graceful wit; at least not in a liberal town like New York.

Curiously missing is the identity and whereabouts of Colin's dad and the unclear romantic relationship between Hester and an ambitious liberal senator (Kevin O'Rourke) seems too peripheral to be of any concern, but despite dramatic holes, The City of Conversation is delicious when it talks.

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