Anthony Giardana’s The City of Conversation is a fairly effective comedy-drama about Washington politics and the effect of ideological polarization upon a family, over the course of three decades (one act for each, although the second and implied third are performed contiguously after intermission). It starts in 1979, during the Carter Presidency, when a prominent and sharp liberal activist Hester Ferris (Jan Maxwell), a widow, has a visit from her college age son Colin (Michael Simpson). He doesn’t have his mother’s sharp articulacy or appreciation of nuance and this would seem to be reflected in his choice of fiancé—who comes along for the visit. She’s Anna Fitzgrald (Kristen Bush) and she does seem to have an innate appreciation for nuance and how to work it to her favor. Hester instinctively senses danger; a feeling confirmed later that evening after dinner, when Anna charms the two visiting senators with her point of view, which leans toward the right. And Colin is revealed to be leaning with her.
With Act Two set during the Reagan Presidency and Act Three on the eve of the Obama Inauguration, The City of Conversation lives up to its title in being highly articulate about politics and passions. And under the direction of Doug Hughes, the cast delivers the conversation compellingly, its rapid fire and meaty text never seeming too dense. This is no easy feat to pull off.
If there’s any letdown to the proceedings, it is perhaps endemic to the debate within. Even when presenting highly articulate characters and—I honestly believe—trying to be even-handed (even if the story is not equally sympathetic), he has the devil’s own time trying to make the conservative perspective credible…though he takes it right to the tipping point and never, as author, seems to be editorializing or condescending in scripting their arguments. On the other hand, what he does convey from that side of the aisle is the fervent belief of people not merely unwilling but unable to separate hyperbole from substance; unable to distinguish between an agenda and the practical mechanics of its realization; unable to differentiate between rationale and rationalization; who have no trouble seeing the contrasting components as all one. Where the play transcends the academic is in bringing this clash of ideologies into a family dynamic that plays out the consequences.
Nice to see—and hear—a talking heads play that revels in the joys and sorrows of intricate language. We haven’t had one of those in a long time.
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