Once in a blue moon an actress has the good fortune to be cast in a career defining role that she is ready, willing and more than able to take advantage of. Jan Maxwell has been given this wonderful gift by playwright Anthony Giardina in THE CITY OF CONVERSATION that has just opened – and been extended (rightfully so) – at The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. She is fantastic.
The role is that of the glamorous, smart, sophisticated and lethal Hester Ferris – a liberal/activist/ hostess (and controlling mother) who makes the most of her gorgeous Georgetown townhouse (another classic design by John Lee Beatty) by giving political deal making dinners, bringing together those opposing Senators and such and allowing their opposing ideas to be hashed over, over brandy and cigars with the hope of persuading them to be swayed – one way or the other – in the process.
One such dinner is on the menu the day that Hester’s son Colin (Michael Simpson) whom she has been “grooming” from day one, unexpectedly arrives back from London armed with his ruthless fiancée Anna Fitzgerald (Kristen Bush) in September 1979 – during the Carter Presidency.
Guests for the evening include George Mallonee (John Aylward) conservative Senator from Kentucky and his wife Carolyn (Barbara Garrick) whose tongue has been sharpened for the event, Hester’s long time married boyfriend Chandler Harris – D. VA. (Kevin O’Rourke) who is seeking a VP place on Ted Kennedy’s ticket and her sister Jean Swift (Beth Dixon) who acts as secretary, maid and bottle washer. I’ve left out “chief cook” as there is never much food in the house as per Hester’s request (never fully explained). Why Aunt Jean stays and puts up with this is also never fully explained. But I quibble.
Politics and family are dished up with wit and zingers. Deftly directed by Doug Hughes. The dialogue is fast, taut and at times furious. We soon discover that Anna is as conniving and sharp tongued as Hester with strong political ambitions that are on the opposite side of Hester’s agenda, bringing to mind another opportunist – Eve Harrington (ALL ABOUT EVE). Sparks fly and the fight is on. Round one ends with Anna securing a job with Mallonee.
Act II – October 1987 – The Reagan Presidency – finds a dismayed Hester lovingly doing day care for Colin and Anna’s six year old son Ethan (Luke Niehaus) who likes bouncing his ball, running around inside the house and watching Cinderella – while secretly writing a letter to block the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court – which is at odds with her son and Anna’s political agenda.
More sparks fly as they verbally spar. Anna threatens to take Ethan away from grandma’s care – never to be seen again – if the letter isn’t destroyed. What’s a stubborn hostess who is losing ground fast but with her principles still intact to do?
Fast forward to January 2009 – The Obama Inauguration – a grown up and openly gay (I didn’t see this coming) Ethan – age 27 played also by Michael Simpson beautifully – unexpectedly drops in with his boyfriend Donald Logan (Phillip James Brannon) who just so happens to be black, just as young and an historian – to visit his estranged grandmother – a now physically frail but still strong willed Hester and Aunt Jean for a reconciliation of sorts. Jan Maxwell’s transformation is awesome. The final moments are touching and will bring tears.
THE CITY OF CONVERSATION is an entertaining and gripping examination of how far one will go to prove a point. Prove a point and lose a family.
Nice work Mr. Giardina to start off the new theatrical season. Through July 6th.
Photos: Stephanie Berger
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