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BWW Review: Bristling A CITY OF CONVERSATION at Arena

When Anthony Giardina's The City of Conversation opened at New York's Lincoln Center Theater in 2014, the depiction of a Georgetown political salon seemed so perfectly reflective of Washington, Arena Stage's Molly Smith rushed to get it staged here, and even succeeded in obtaining the same director, Doug Hughes.

Now, with a perfect cast to portray its shifts, ins and outs of the Reagan 80s to the inauguration of Obama, it is also the perfect play for politics-obsessed D.C., where your reviewer Metros to opening night listening to CSPAN, taping a Democratic debate to watch after the play.

Tracking that near-mythical time when politicians of opposite parties would meet and dine at night, bringing their wives and finest bourbon, to hash out the kinds of things they couldn't in the halls of Congress, to an era where families were split based on their polarizing views on a Supreme Court nominee, The City of Conversation seems like the kind of play that should run in perpetuity in D.C., in place of tourist fare like Shear Madness, at the Kennedy Center.

The anchor of the play and the family is provided by Margaret Colin, who hasn't played D.C. before but has the credentials, having played Katharine Graham in The Pentagon Papers on a tour of China. She's headstrong and formidable as the matriarch of a Georgetown household where power is carefully cultivated and edged along. She lives with a Virginia senator (Tom Wiggins) intent on becoming a vice presidential candidate for Ted Kennedy. But her tart-tongued sister (Ann McDonough, providing hilarious comic relief) hangs around to help.

The main action is the return of her son (Michael Simpson) from graduate school in London, where he's picked up a girlfriend (Caroline Hewitt) in addition to a degree. While at first the girlfriend feigns innocence to the way things work in Washington, she turns out to be a formidable and confident force of her own, a harkening of the young conservative tide.

By act two, the generations are at odds over the nomination of Robert Bork as Supreme Court justice, an issue that galvanizes liberals in an era when they've had few victories. Care of a young grandchild (Tyler Smallwood) becomes a bargaining chip in the ideological intra-family tug of war.

Act three begins on Obama's first inaugural, where the grandchild comes to visit his estranged grandmother out of curiosity on the way to a ball. Giardina's script provides a smart and moving resolution worthy of the underlying hope of that night.

The City of Conversation, whose title is taken from a quote by Henry James about D.C., works because of the strength of the cast - Colin throughout, but also the dynamism of Hewitt, so full of steely ambition that curdles. For as assailed as his character is, Simpson gets to change the most all night, from tousle-headed grad student, to mustachioed middle aged mope, then to his own grandson, who looks like he may be an entirely different actor. Colin, too, goes through changes, especially at the end when time (and eight more years of a Republican in office) has aged her. (But let's also give it up for wig designer Tom Watson).

John Lee Beatty's set, with its Persian rug and perfectly well worn pieces, is appropriately set in the round of the Fichandler Stage, where the battling political philosophies duke it out as if in a boxing ring (and change slightly with each jump in time). A stairways up and down suggest a full sized Georgetown townhouse, but it is the activity in the salon that defines the home as a place of political potency.

The cast is rounded out by Todd Scofield and Jjana Valentiner as a Kentucky senator and his wife, who defy cartoonish stereotypes, and Freddie Bennett as an historian who looks at the household for its important political relics.

There is nothing of a relic in this production, though, which is as vibrant and reflective of the Washington political world as anything you might see anywhere.

Running time: Two hours, 15 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission.

Photo: Michael Simpson and Margaret Colin in Arena Stage's "City of Conversation." Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

"The City of Conversation" runs through March 6 at the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth St. NW. 202-488-3300 or arenastage.org.



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