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Off Broadway Review: ‘The City of Conversation’

This gripping political drama at Lincoln Center Theater benefits from director Doug Hughes' light touch and a dynamic lead performance by Jan Maxwell.

Jan Maxwell, Beth Dixon, Michael Simpson, Kristen Bush, John Aylward, Kevin O'Rourke, Barbara Garrick, Luke Niehaus, Philip James Brannon.

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.

Smart, shrewd, sophisticated, and absolutely stunning in the classy frocks designed for Maxwell’s svelte frame by Catherine Zuber, the celebrated Georgetown hostess Hester Ferris can look back on a career spanning Presidential administrations from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama.  When first met, at home in John Lee Beatty’s elegantly designed townhouse, Hester is doing her best to keep up the standards of dinner-party politics during the notoriously prim Carter Presidency.

At curtain rise, Hester and her efficient sister, Jean Swift (pitch-perfect Beth Dixon), are preparing for one of those celebrated dinner parties at which movers and shakers from both parties can meet (and make deals) under congenial and utterly discreet circumstances.  But in an ominous background note, the President is heard delivering his bummer 1979 “Malaise” speech about the growing alienation of America’s citizens from its elected government. From the Democratic Party, is what he really meant, making a prediction that would take shape during the Reagan era.

But the winds of change are already ruffling the curtains in the Ferris household.  Hester’s dim-witted son, Colin (Michael Simpson, hiding his intelligence) unexpectedly arrives home with his intended, Anna Fitzgerald (Kristen Bush, in a decent impression of Eve Harrington), a creature from another planet.  That is to say, a conservative Republican.

Before the evening is out, the calculating Anna will have scuttled Hester’s carefully laid plans for the conservative Senator George Mallonee (John Aylward, from Central Casting) and bagged the Kentucky Republican for her own purposes — that is to say, a job with great prospects for political advancement. (Cruel joke: She becomes head of the National Endowment of the Humanities.)

As reigning queen of the Georgetown social scene, Hester knows a snake when she sees one slithering into her garden and she swoops down from on high to tangle with this new species of party animal. Maxwell’s dynamic perf gives brains and heart to Hester’s impassioned principles — and her firm belief in non-partisan dinner-party civility as the way to achieve her party’s political goals. But she’s no match for Anna, who represents a more ruthless era of partisan politics, as played by a new breed of hostesses who would throw an entirely different kind of party.

There was always a hidden agenda to the intimate social affairs that fabled Washington hostesses staged in their Georgetown salons. At tonight’s dinner party, it’s “a little Judiciary Committee thing” set up by Hester and brazenly undermined by Anna. “I’ll bet you’re an ambitious girl,” Hester says to her future daughter-in-law.  “I’ll bet you’re right,” Anna snaps back.

But this fascinating clash between the gracious old liberals and the pitiless new conservatives doesn’t carry over into Act Two, which shifts focus from the political arena to the domestic hearth.  Hester and Anna battle their way through the entire Reagan era, but it’s a mean-spirited family matter rather than some high-minded political issue, that ultimately brings down the old guard.

Helmer Doug Hughes has a light touch that takes some of the edge off these melodramatic plot developments. But novelist-playwright Giardina isn’t aiming for subtlety, so the dramatic events are a bit extreme and the performances a bit overwrought.  In the end, it’s emotional blackmail rather than political maneuvering that signals the end of an era.  Which isn’t half as interesting as the story that Giardina left untold.

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Off Broadway Review: 'The City of Conversation'

Lincoln Center / Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater; 299 seats; $87 top. Opened May 5, 2014. Reviewed May 1. Running time: TWO HOURS.

Production: A Lincoln Center Theater production of a play in two acts by Anthony Giardina.

Creative: Directed by Doug Hughes. Set, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; original music & sound, Mark Bennett; production stage manager, James FitzSimmons.

Cast: Jan Maxwell, Beth Dixon, Michael Simpson, Kristen Bush, John Aylward, Kevin O'Rourke, Barbara Garrick, Luke Niehaus, Philip James Brannon.

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