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The City of Conversation

Speaking of Politics

By Anthony Giardina
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, New York, N.Y.
Saturday, July 12, 2014, H–104&105 (back row, right center)
Directed by Doug Hughes

Mallonnee in three-piece suit sits next to Anna in long black dress and strapped high heels on couch, Chandler in background wearing gray business suit with left hand in pocket, Hester standing right, talking down to Mallonee and Anna, glass in left hand, making a point with right, wearing a knee-length red dress, white stockings and heels
From left, George Mallonee (John Aylward), Anna Fitzgerald (Kristen Bush), Chandler Harris (Kevin O'Rourke), and Hester Ferris (Jan Maxwell) discuss politics in the Lincoln Center Theater production of Anthony Giardina's The City of Conversation at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Photo by Stephanie Berger, Lincoln Center Theater.

I stopped discussing religion with people other than my family as early as my college days. Usually within minutes, such "discussions" turn into one-way proselytizing with me on the receiving end of a threatening invitation to join the cult and condemnation if I resisted. The irony is that I'm a man of deep religious faith; it just so happens that the particular teachings I heed include a specific instruction regarding display of religious fervor (see Matthew 6:1-13).

I stopped discussing politics about 20 years ago, when religious-like fervor took over that topic, too. I'll occasionally have genuinely interesting conversations with friends and colleagues who reside in completely different political-affiliation domains than I do, but these talks start with mutual respect for each other's individual intelligence, experience, and values. More and more, though, I encounter people, including friends and colleagues, who rely on misinformation, disinformation, dismissal of my information, or dissing me for my information. Within seconds such discussion would become proselytizing, me on the receiving end of condemnation and disinvitation from abiding in their country. The irony is that I have been hog-tied like that from both ends of the political spectrum.

Considering my frustration at this current state of political unilogue, I'm not sure what drew me to Anthony Giardina's new play The City of Conversation, an entertainingly funny but emotionally dramatic domestic tragedy for political junkies that premiered at the Lincoln Center in New York this spring. Maybe it was the promise of insights into the political role of the Georgetown social scene in my new hometown, the nation's capital, that enticed me to squeeze a matinee performance into our schedule when the production was extended through July. I got some of that insight, but more than anything I saw played out the personal costs of scorched-earth politics that I find so deeply troubling in today's culture of mutual vilification. (And as the play's run has ended, I will discuss key plot points and conclusions in this essay; if you are reading this on the eve of seeing another production of this play, be aware that I will be giving away the ending.)

Set entirely in the living room of a political operative's Georgetown townhouse, the play spans three political epochs—from 1979 to 2008—and shows not only how ideology can cripple a nation, but also how it can disintegrate a family. Did I write ideology? Maybe politics is the more accurate word, for in this play we see how politics and its conjoined cousin power become greater motivators than ideology in pursuing public policy. It's all about winning—winning at all costs, even at the destruction of an individual's particular world (the nuclear option on a personal level). The play also contains a message about the heroism of making supreme sacrifices, but I came away feeling that sacrifice is also little more than a winning gambit on the political battlefield.

Giardina's play leans left. This is clear in the final plot point and in some of the subtle, stabbing jokes. One example: the conservative character who shows zero compassion for other members of the family becomes chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under President George W. Bush; the line in the script that delivers this news garners many knowing yuks from the audience. Yet, despite the play's liberal slant, from my perspective the moral of the play is nonpartisan because my perspective is a long-view one. In today's political landscape, the conservative factions are the most intractable in their politics, ideological to violent extremes, and consider compromise a sin worse than murder. This is not only a trend in the United States, Russia, and several Middle East territories, but also across Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa, too. The City of Conversation sets the germination of this trend in the Reagan years. Had Giardina extended his timeframe back another 10 years, though, we'd see the opposite extreme at its apex, when liberal factions were the most intractable and violent, not only in the United States but throughout the Americas and in Europe, too.

I don't think this left-to-right pendulum is simply cyclical; it is the result of extremists hijacking general reactions to these trends. The bulk of us are gray, and when politics swing too far in one direction, we ultimately get fed up and pull the ideology back toward the middle—only to have the opposite extreme over-interpret our notions into justification of their particular dogmas and we slide down the brambled slope of the other side. This state of the political divide is heightened now thanks to the proliferation of media outlets, from the airwaves (television and radio) to the Internet. However, Giardina shows us a more psychological aspect of this political divide, and in doing so makes the consequences of the conflict more personal—not just in matters of "our personal politics" but in what really matters: our emotional souls, our human hearts, our most vital interrelationships.

The Georgetown townhome belongs to Hester Ferris (Jan Maxwell), and the play begins in September 1979 when Jimmy Carter's presidency is stumbling along a couple of months before the Iran Hostage Crisis is to begin (the characters in this play are all fictional, including the future NEH head, though the script refers to historical events and individuals). Set designer John Lee Beatty has built a genuine interior of a Q Street Federal-style home, with Queen Anne and Chippendale furniture, Persian rugs, elegant appointments, wall sconces, flowers, and photos of people—we soon learn each includes Hester—snapped during social events. Lighting designer Tyler Micoleau distinguishes the interior lights from the sun shining through the double French doors leading to the patio. Costumer designer Catherine Zuber fits the clothes to the three eras but is mindful that these individuals are society conscience and thus never go outlandish in the fashions of the day; they are simply but immaculately dressed, except Hester's sister Jean Swift (Beth Dixon) who never got rid of her old housedresses from the '50s.

Hester is an adherent of the Northeast liberal Democratic tradition; Sen. Teddy Kennedy is her star, and staying with her when he is in town is her lover, Democratic Sen. Chandler Harris (Kevin O'Rourke, ever congenial even when ticked). Hester's son Colin (Michael Simpson) and his fiancée Anna Fitzgerald (Kristen Bush) arrive from London, a day earlier than scheduled as Hester is preparing to host a dinner for the Republican senator from Kentucky, George Mallonee (John Aylward in sly, good ol' boy mode) and his dour wife Carolyn (Barbara Garrick, whose piercing eyes are almost lethal when they express her real thoughts that don't jibe with the words forced through her tight smile). As is typical of Georgetown society, the purpose of the dinner is to accomplish political deals under the guise of socializing.

Young Anna is dressed in the fashion of the time, knee-length suede dress and tall boots, turquoise earrings dangling from her lobes. She has heard so much of Colin's mother and wants to watch her in action, and though Hester's motherly instincts are pinging, she dresses Anna in a simple but beautiful black cocktail dress and invites her to the dinner. Hester soon realizes it wasn't her motherly instincts pinging—it was her political instincts. At the dinner, Anna intervenes in the private talk between the two senators (smoking a cigar along with them), revealing that this bright young woman from Minnesota is in the vanguard of the Ronald Reagan Revolution. She not only blocks Chandler's and Hester's twisting of Sen. Mallonee's political arm, she gets a spot on his staff. Turns out the young couple's day-early arrival was no accident: Anna knows what it takes to install the rungs on her ladder to the top of D.C. politics.

Hester is already dealing with a shift in that landscape; she complains that Carter doesn't trust the Georgetown elite, and that is why his presidency is failing. But she can't fathom the bigger changes coming, represented by Anna, and when we return to the townhome for act two, it is October 1987, the Reagan Revolution has hit its apex, the battle over Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court is raging, and Colin and Anna have a 6-year-old son, Ethan (Luke Niehaus, a consummate professional) whom Hester babysits after school.

It is in this scene that the political divide becomes bitterly personal. Hester is actively working in the campaign to deny Bork the nomination despite her promise to her son to abstain, and the centerpiece of her efforts is a letter she has written for newspaper editorials. Colin is working for a Republican senator and fears that he will be out of a job if Bork's nomination doesn't go through (especially if it is discovered his mother was a party to that result). Anna is a lawyer at the Justice Department, in black pencil skirt, hair up in a bun, and tattling on about how much she appreciates real Republican men, the obvious insinuation being that she has no use for cooking aficionado Colin except as the rails of her ladder (at one point Hester looks through Anna's purse for Colin's testicles).

Young Ethan in private school uniform works a video player on top of a TV as Jean and Hester watch, Jean holding a tablet, Hester holding the video box, witht he patio in the background
Six-year-old Ethan (Luke Niehaus) works the video player on the television as his grandmother Hester (Jan Maxwell, right), and her sister Jean (Beth Dixon) watch in astonishment in the Lincoln Center Theater's production of Anthony Giardina's The City of Conversation. Photo by Stephanie Berger, Lincoln Center Theater.

Hester's opinion on the Bork nomination is certainly genuine, but some of her motivation is a longing to return to the days when the liberal elite ruled the land and Georgetown mattered. Anna's opinion on the Bork nomination may be genuine, but all she expresses is her need to win. The Reagan-led conservative movement has hitherto been undefeated in her mind, and she wants to keep that streak going. She even denigrates people who contend that failure is character building; there's no place for losing in her political or personal world. Colin's opinion on Bork is nonexistent; he just doesn't want to lose his job. Giardina has written dialogue here that sometimes rambles off into tangents but sharpens when it comes to the mindsets that drive these three individuals in this scene, and Maxwell, Bush, and Simpson leave every ounce of emotional energy on the stage as their characters go to psychological war with each other. Hester insists on debate, shouting at her son to fight her: she thrives on the fight, but she also knows that through such discussion, respect if not consensus can be forged. Anna, though, doesn't see the need to fight if you can win by other means, and she plays an end-run gambit; if Hester doesn't tear up her letter and give up her work on the anti-Bork campaign, Anna and Colin will never let her have access to their son again. The scene ends with Ethan being led out of the house as Hester prepares to deliver her letter.

The long view tells you how silly all of this is. Colin might lose his job with the senator, but this is Washington, D.C.: a week later he would be working for a lobbying firm, a think tank, or as a talking head on cable news. Hester's stand is a noble sacrifice, but the cost for such a single element in a wide-ranging campaign is unceasing heartbreak. Anna's scorched-earth tactic—her my-way-or-no-way and no-tolerance-for-discussion attitude—is bound to create a vacuum of loneliness, while in the political environment writ large, her tenet that losing doesn't foster character ultimately leads to despotism and a hijacked democracy—if elections don't go our way, let's change the rules or resort to arms.

The final act, taking place on the night of Barack Obama's inauguration in January 2009, telezooms this long-term view into focus. Colin and Anna have divorced: he is working in state government and enjoying time cooking; she is about to lose her job at the NEH. Once again, a couple shows up at Hester's home: her grandson, now 27 (and played by Simpson) with his fiancé, Donald Logan (Andy Lucien). He, too, has a fascination with Hester, but as a scholar who sees the liberal elite era of the 1960s as ancient history. This is the first meeting of grandmother and grandson since their enforced estrangement, and the two psychologically dance around each other like gamecocks too nervous to fight. Hester takes comfort in the knowledge that her sacrifice back in 1987 paved the way for the opportunities now afforded such couples as Ethan and Donald; yet, there's bitter emptiness in her demeanor. She missed 20 years of her grandson's life, 20 years she will never regain.

Choose your hero in this play; mine is the seemingly insignificant character with little to say but who is on stage or never far from it the entire play: Jean, Hester's sister. Her purpose in the plot seems to be nothing more than helping her sister with the housework and babysitting; Colin accuses his mother of using Jean as free labor (and he's right). She's also Hester's conscience; she cautions her about sacrificing her access to Ethan, and she convinces her to reconcile with Ethan in the last scene. But when Hester decides to deliver the letter, Jean is with her all the way.

One of the play's more enigmatic moments comes in the first scene when Anna expresses her condolences to Jean for the loss of her husband, the insinuation being he was lost in combat. Anna honors Jean for her sacrifice, but Jean looks warily at Anna—even this early in the play she seems to be questioning the young woman's sincerity. Life goes on, Jean replies, and she goes on, serving her nation by serving the people she loves. Her clothes indicate she may be caught in her own time warp, but Jean has the most forward-thinking mind of anybody in this room.

Eric Minton
August 1, 2014

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