“City of Conversation” theater review: rich in character and story

The family drama delves into national politics over a 30-year span.

Anthony Giardina’s “The City of Conversation,” which is receiving its world premiere Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater, says a lot about how disappointing the recently finished theater season was for new American plays, as it’s hard to think of any that trumps “The City of Conversation” in richness of character and content.
A family drama delving into national politics over a 30-year time span, it follows Hester Ferris (Jan Maxwell), the elegant wife of a liberal senator who manages to shape policy as a fashionable hostess, having Democrats and Republicans meet at her Georgetown town house to hash out their differences in a civilized, nonthreatening atmosphere.
It begins in 1979 with Hester working behind-the-scenes on behalf of Ted Kennedy, who she believes could be the Democratic presidential nominee in 1980 over Jimmy Carter. As she wines and dines politicians, her way of life is threatened by the arrival of her college-age son Colin (Michael Simpson) and his proudly Republican fiancée, Anna (Kristen Bush).
In the next scene, set almost a decade later, Hester is hard at work trying to prevent Robert Bork from ascending to the Supreme Court. Colin and Anna, seeing Hester as a threat, deliver a harsh ultimatum: either stop her letter-writing campaign opposing Bork or lose all contact with her family, including her grandson Ethan.
It concludes around the time of Obama’s first inauguration, with an elderly Hester meeting Ethan for the first time in years and his male partner, which leads to them debating Hester’s refusal to compromise and lost role in politics.
Some of the supporting characters can be further fleshed out. But for the most part, this is a deeply absorbing, thought-provoking drama receiving a solid production by director Doug Hughes. Maxwell, a five-time Tony nominee, gives one of her finest performances to date.

AMNY Newsletter

Eat it. Drink it. Do it. Tackle the city, with our help.