The Senator from Kentucky calls it “the city of conversation,” a term originally coined by Henry James. The Senator goes on to describe it as a city filled with “chatter and culture and nuance.” The city is Washington, D.C. and the year is 1979. It is a time of conviviality. A time when people pursue their agendas civilly and respectfully over drinks and hors d’oeuvres and dinner, and the hostesses of Georgetown entertain the men, and sometimes the women, their husbands wish to influence.
Such a woman is Hester Ferris (Christine Lahti), a divorced activist whose agenda coincides with that of her liberal lover, the married Senator from Virginia, Chandler Harris (Steven Culp). It is Hester’s story that is told in “The City of Conversation,” an exciting new play by Anthony Giardina.
As the play opens, the dinner party at Hester’s comfortable home is being staged to persuade the Senator from Kentucky (a cheerfully bombastic David Selby) to vote for a bill that Chandler and Teddy Kennedy are promoting. The bill concerns a Senate Judiciary Committee request that anyone being considered for a federal judgeship resign his membership in any all-white country club. As Hester notes, “Washington is about boldness, but it has to be couched in layers.” Thus, the dinner party.
In the midst of the preparations Hester and her sister Jean (Deborah Offner) are surprised by Hester’s son Colin (Jason Ritter), who has returned home from the London School of Economics a day early. Moreover, he has brought his acerbic girlfriend, Anna (Georgia King), with him. She and Hester dislike each other immediately, and the tension rises when Colin tells his mother that he intends to marry this ultra-conservative Republican girl. Hester, who has already sized the girl up as someone consumed by ambition, is appalled. “She’s come here so she can take over this town,” Hester tells him. “You’ll be her little adjunct.”
Anna confirms Hester’s suspicions when she enters into the lively after dinner conversation, even though she’d been asked previously by Hester to keep her contrary opinions to herself. Speaking for the people in her small town community in Minnesota, Anna tells the Senator from Kentucky and his wife (Michael Learned) that she thinks her neighbors have the feeling “that we’ve gone as far as we need to. I think what people would most like from Washington is a bill declaring the 60’s officially over. And what they mean is the stranglehold of the Northeast-of a world view that insists we all need to be coerced into good behavior.”
“There is a feeling,” she continues, “that a suppressed energy is waiting to be released…that Governor Reagan might restore people’s simple belief that the old agreements, the ones that made this a great country-personal responsibility, neighborhood, family, a reassertion of people’s basic freedoms-have to come back. Or we’re quite possibly lost.”
To which the Senator responds, “I like what I’m hearing.”
(And so do Republicans, 37 years later, who are responding to reality TV host Donald Trump’s inane pledge to “Make America Great Again.”)
Having enchanted the Senator and carefully demolished Hester’s angry rebuttals, Anna and Colin retire to bed as Act One ends.
The next act advances the story to 1987. Anna and Colin have married and produced a six-year-old son, Ethan (the marvelously precocious Nicholas Oteri). His grandmother Hester dotes on him, providing constant attention as the afternoon caretaker for his frantically busy working mom. She is also subtly indoctrinating him with her political views, in opposition to the right-wing views of his mother and father.
This situation comes to a head when Hester becomes involved in the effort to block Robert Bork’s controversial nomination to the Supreme Court. She has written a powerful newspaper ad accusing “this evil man” of wanting to turn back the tide of the last 50 years and keep black people and women from moving forward.
When Anna, who works for the Justice Department, discovers the ad she asks Hester not to publish it. But Hester will not compromise her lifelong convictions even though she knows that it may damage her son’s career. (Colin has already expressed his opinion that a president is entitled to leave as a legacy a Supreme Court Justice of his choice, even though his fellow Republicans will refute that entitlement only seven years later.) And so Anna, incensed by her mother-in-law’s intransigence, retaliates by threatening to keep Ethan away from his grandmother permanently. When Colin arrives he agrees with Anna’s ultimatum, and he and his wife and son leave Hester’s house forever.
In the final poignant scene, set in 2009, a grown-up Ethan returns with his friend Donald (Johnny Ramey) to visit a grandmother he no longer remembers. It’s a beautiful scene in a remarkably intelligent play, and the extraordinary cast, under director Michael Wilson, keeps it lively and engrossing to the very end.
“The City of Conversation” premiered at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York in 2014 and at the Arena Stage in Washington in 2015. It can be seen in Los Angeles Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. through June 4 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. For tickets, call (310) 746-4000 or go to TheWallis.org.