You’ve undoubtedly heard the saying: Timing is everything. Bud Martin has excellent timing.
Martin, the executive director of the Delaware Theatre Company, originally wanted to program a production of Anthony Giardina’s political melodrama “The City of Conversation” into the 2015-16 season but could not obtain the rights. As luck would have it, he got permission just in time to offer the work about politics and family relationships during one of the most vitriolic electoral campaigns in history.
American writer Henry James called Washington, DC the “city of conversation” after discovering there was a clandestine culture where elite powerbrokers pulled strings, made alliances and got things done outside the realm of formal political discourse.
Giardina’s play- which opened at the DTC on Saturday- provides a witty and intelligent glimpse into this behind-the-scenes world showing the ebb and flow of power that takes place not only in the White House but among the foot soldiers whose fortunes rise and fall in tandem.
The play opens in the fall of 1979. The scene is the Georgetown parlor of Great Society liberal doyenne Hester Ferris (Susan Wilder), one of those behind-the-scenes distaff powerbrokers whose genteel dinner parties once facilitated across-the-aisle deal-making among the Beltway’s menfolk. Hester is gearing up to support Ted Kennedy in his bid to capture the Democratic nomination from incumbent Jimmy Carter in the hope of staving off the looming threat from what we now know as the Reagan Revolution.
Hester’s evening is upset when grownup son Colin, fresh from the London School of Economics, arrives “accidentally” a day early with conservative Republican girlfriend Anna Fitzgerald.
Anna quickly cozies up first to Hester, then her widowed sister Jean Swift and finally to Hester’s dinner guests Kentucky George and his wife Carolyn Mallonee. She even sidles up- politically- to Hester’s live-in love interest the married Virginia Senator Chandler Harris.
Sizing up Anna and the threat to her world coming from her populist, make-America-good-again rhetoric, Hester warns about how things work in “the city of conversation.” “Washington is about boldness but it has to be couched in layers,” she offers. “People smell ambition. They do. And they defend themselves.”
Time passes and Hester soon finds herself living in a house divided. Colin has married Anna—against his mother’s advice—and the two have entered the now polarized world of 1980s Washington. Hester, now a grandmother, finds herself caring for their six-year-old son Ethan (played by impressive young actor, Ethan Wagner). But when the tyke starts spouting some of Hester’s liberal views and her letter supporting a liberal judge is discovered by Anna- who backs Bork- the ante gets upped and the boy gets used as a pawn that further divides the family.
Giardina’s script is both intelligent and witty, sometimes acerbically so. While the politics may not be everyone’s taste, most of us can readily identify with family conflicts that arise from harboring and expressing opposing viewpoints. Thus the second act is the one that will resonate most strongly with audiences. The final scene takes place on the eve of President Obama’s inauguration. A grown-up Ethan and his partner Donald (nicely played by Brandon J. Pierce), both far more liberal than Hester expects, reunite with his grandmother and offer some surprising revelations that put a fitting wrap on the story.
Wilder portrays Hester with all the glamour and grace-under-fire one would expect of a Georgetown hostess. Dan Kern and Laural Merlington (Jean Swift) are unswerving if not occasionally world-weary allies as Hester’s love interest (Chandler Harris) and sister-cum-Gal Friday (Jean Swift). Jered McLenigan does a superb job of tracing the evolution of Hester’s son Colin from hirsute student to buttoned- down bureaucrat as well as the adult version of his son, Ethan. Buck Schirner cuts a striking figure as Kentucky senator George Mallonee while Drucie McDaniel is memorable as his wife: a “steel magnolia” wrapped in Southern gentility.
Jessica Bedford is savvy and calculating as Anna, playing it close to the vest only to show her hand at key moments. Her relationship with Hester echoes that of Eve Harrington in the classic “All About Eve.” There is in fact a barbed reference about the young starlet and seasoned actress in Act I.
The action takes place upon a classically appointed Georgetown parlor designed by James Dardenne featuring period-appropriate costumes by Millie Hiibel. Director William Roudebush and his talented cast bring this dramedy to life. It is enlightening, entertaining—and uncannily pertinent. “The City of Conversation” shows us the irreparable damage caused by a house divided, giving us a lesson we all should heed in this acrimonious political season.