Playwright Anthony Giardina’s The City of Conversations has an interesting premise: Beginning in 1979 with the Carter presidency, Conversations follows the evolution of American politics for 30 years through the lens of one family. Hester Ferris (Emmy winner Christine Lahti, who now has a recurring role in CBS’ Hawaii Five-O retread as Steve McGarrett’s cunning, mysterious mother with a covert past) is the estimable matriarch of a political clan that has held sway via her influential perch as a Georgetown hostess over the nation’s capital, where the parties you throw can be as important as the party you belong to.
In Act I, home from graduate school, her longhaired son Colin (Jason Ritter, whose stage and screen credits include Wendy Wasserstein’s Third, HBO’s Girls and the new Susan Sarandon comedy The Meddler) and his conniving Minnesota fiancée Anna Fitzgerald (British actress Georgia King, whose scheming, leggy blonde gives Reese Witherspoon’s Machiavellian Republican in 1999’s Election a run for her money) conveniently show up a night earlier than planned in order to crash one of Hester’s renowned soirees, where this Washington doyenne has played kingmaker since at least the Kennedy years.
Delilah-like, the overbearing Hester fusses over Colin’s tresses, imploring him to get a haircut before the posh party Teddy Kennedy is expected to attend. And Hester visibly recoils at and positively disdains Anna’s thigh-high, purplish, velvety boots. It seems that Hester is on the right-wing side of the so-called “culture wars,” and that Colin and Anna represent the counterculture and a breath of fresh air in the stifling firmament of Washington in this three-acter with one intermission at Beverly Hills’ Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
But in fact, [PLOT SPOILER ALERT!] the only uprising this hippie-style couple is down for is the onslaught of the Reagan Revolution. As for Hester, she can still smell a whiff of Camelot. So either Giardina is confused and being counterintuitive, or he is insightfully pointing out that beneath the surface – especially in politics, which makes strange bedfellows – things aren’t always as they appear to be. In any case, Act I plants the seeds of a clash that erupts in Conversations‘ second act, which reaches the boiling point during a pivotal moment of the Reagan presidency (and which some audience members found to be quite timely, what with the current stalemate over a Supreme Court nominee).
This drama reveals American history through the political peregrinations of one family. It could be retitled Long Decades’ Journey Into Politicking and is sort of later Eugene O’Neill meets Bertolt Brecht (but, alas, without his audacity and verve). Having said this, theatergoers uninterested in elections, primaries, Senate committee hearings and the like are likely to be bored. As its name suggests, Conversations is quite talky and there’s little onstage action, which is confined to scenic designer Jeff Cowie’s expertly executed set of a home where JFK might have sought wisdom during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The clips projected onstage to introduce each era are entirely obvious and predictable.
Two things redeem this play. The third act, set in 2009, raises an important question: Should people allow politics to divide relatives and friends? Is who somebody backs for office or what bill they support grounds for maintaining cordial, let alone loving, relations with friends and especially blood relatives? Must the familial be political? Or do the bonds of affection, forged by friendship and family, override the proverbial rough and tumble of politics?
For example, Che Guevara, the Left’s knight in shining armor, at some point reportedly chose his friends based mainly on their ideological orientation. I have personally seen with my own eyes friendships destroyed by political disagreements and strains placed on family members because of one’s stance on the issues of the day. But is even the most principled stand worth the heartache of estrangement from loved ones? As Conversations updates its sweep of American political life to tackle same sex marriage and LGBT rights, Giardina asks this pertinent question.
The other thing that makes seeing the West Coast premiere of this play that originally opened in 2014 at Lincoln Center is its cast, well-directed by Michael Wilson. It’s a treat to see the lanky, lithe Lahti in person as the imperious Hester, along with actors such as Steven Culp, who plays her lover, the politician Chandler and – appropriately! – previously depicted Bobby Kennedy in 2000’s Thirteen Days and in the 1996 TV movie Norma Jean & Marilyn, as well as JFK in 2012 in the Perception TV series. So, my fellow aficionados, ask not what the theater can do for you: Ask what you can do for the theater.
The City of Conversations is being presented through June 4 at the Bram Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210.
For info: for tickets (310) 746-4000; www.thewallis.org/.
Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).
Photo: The City of Conversation. Pictured (l-r): Christine Lahti and Jason Ritter. Kevin Parry | The Wallis.