By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
"Dinner is always about something." Or so it was back in the heyday of the D.C. political dinner party, where some crucial vote on some piece of legislation was the hidden agenda, followed by cognac and cigars. This is the 1979 world of the first act of Anthony Giardina's new play, The City of Conversation, when Carter was President and thin, rich, brittle, shrewd hostesses wielded liberal power with wit and charm. It's worth here remembering the Washington adage: "If you don't have a seat at the table, then you're probably on the menu."
The doyenne of the Washington of Giardina's play is Hester Ferris, played by the splendid Jan Maxwell. She is an impassioned liberal and the plot will turn, in the second act, on her commitment to defeating Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court. The year is 1987 and her son, a dim bulb, brings home a Reaganite wife (Kristen Bush) who is ruthless, ambitious and knows her enemy when she sees her.
Hester is ultimately confronted—as are we--with the play's central challenge: when you have to choose between sociopolitical ideals and family, what do you do?
This is revealed but unresolved in the third act; it is the night of the Obama inauguration and her grandson, now a grown man (Michael Simpson) visits with his gay, black partner, full of hurt feelings and do-gooder outrage, only to be asked by his now-ancient grandmother, "Would you trade the rights we won you just so we could have gone on?"
Director Doug Hughes keeps the tension taut and the issues clear. It is surprisingly moving, especially as a portrait of a woman of a particular kind of courage (and especially seeing it on Mother's Day), although I wonder how The City of Conversation would play to an audience that is not as reliably liberal as a Lincoln Center crowd. Or to a younger, downtown crowd who may not actually know recognize the names Robert Bork and Ollie North.
The set, designed by John Lee Beatty, is a Georgetown room, looking like a cross between a men's club and a hotel suite; this is a room built on protocol, on solid old money, remaining impersonal and unchanged through the decades.
This behind-the-scenes play makes an interesting companion piece to All the Way, the b-t-s play about Lyndon Johnson's presidency now running on Broadway. Both suggest that politics back in the day required finesse and duplicity, although in The City of Conversation, there's more of Noel Coward than there is in LBJ's Will Rogers. None of these hostesses could have foreseen the crassness of TV hate ads and celebrity worship that now dominate political power struggles. Apparently, the art of conversation—by articulate people who have thought through their commitments- cannot survive twitter or blogs.