Review: ‘The City of Conversation’ at Arena Stage

In the daring new play about Washington politics and the halcyon days of genteel social hostesses, The City of Conversation, (now playing at Arena Stage) the word “conversation “ is most decidedly a polite euphemism for today’s more applicable words such as “gossip,” “back biting,” and “slander.” Time marches on and the viciousness of people (in this case, powerful people) takes no holiday.

Playwright Anthony Giardina’s deft and scathing play is all too relevant. Go back in a time capsule to yesteryear and the politics were still brutal but at least there was a semblance of “honor among thieves.” In today’s political climate, all we have left are big money influencing everything, sound bites from the media and the most plastic of packaging.

(L-R) Tom Wiggin (Chandler Harris), Margaret Colin (Hester Ferris), Caroline Hewitt (Anna Fitzgerald), Todd Scofield (George Mallonee), and Jjana Valentiner (Carolyn Mallonee). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
(L-R) Tom Wiggin (Chandler Harris), Margaret Colin (Hester Ferris), Caroline Hewitt (Anna Fitzgerald), Todd Scofield (George Mallonee), and Jjana Valentiner (Carolyn Mallonee). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Giardina’s stimulating play is full of many zippy, provocative and topical questions. The theme of political acrimony is universal in that almost everyone has some extended family member who may think about politics in a totally different and radical manner; this makes for complex interpersonal relationships  (for example, my brother is much more conservative and reactionary than I am —yet I would take a bullet for him! ).

The stunning Zelda Fichandler Stage (one of several Arena Stage Theaters) highlights the more physical aspects of the play well but esteemed Director Doug Hughes (Tony Award-winning director of the Broadway hit Doubt) has seated some principal actors for too long a spell in stationary spots ——-thus, making it difficult to understand the emotions on an actor’s face when their back is facing you (an all “too-common”: problem with the “theater-in-the-round” model). Initial exposition of the impending themes were set up in a somewhat static, slow-moving first act.

Luckily, after intermission, the rest of the play moved very professionally and briskly with much improved pacing and emotional reciprocity among the actors. The quicksilver shifts of tone in this play from satiric to polemical to subtly comedic, mirror the theme of how the minutiae of daily life’s social and personal rituals are reflected in the political realities and gamesmanship of a once very influential Washington powerbroker and hostess Hester Ferris (the well-known actress Margaret Colin), her conservative son Colin (Michael Simpson) and his conservative fiancée (Caroline Hewitt). Add to the mix a sharply-tongued, utterly practical sister (Ann McDonough) and a conservative Senator and his wife (actors Todd Scofield and Jjana Valentiner).

A large span of historical forces collide from the era of Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush to Obama (with textual flashbacks to the era of Johnson, Nixon, and the socially dynamic period of Kennedy). To avoid spoiler alerts in this play, I cannot divulge anything whatsoever about the immense time swings as young grandson Ethan Ferris (Tyler Smallwood) grows up and enters a new life (as an older man) involving the fine actor Freddie Bennett. Let’s just say that political paradigms do some shifting!

Tensions in the play become more heated (just as in real life—-the Democratic and Republican parties have never really recovered from this rift) with the long confirmation hearings whereby the Democrats garnered the majority of votes to block the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. This historical moment is the axis from which much of the play’s repercussions and reverberations flow.

As the influential hostess Hester Ferris (with a touch of “declining influence” once the Nixon era starts), Margaret Colin is by turns charming, ironic, subtly comedic and ingratiating as the role requires but she lacks the edgy formidable quality that a powerful Georgetown socialite/hostess would possess (alas—many of her line readings were too softly phrased and, thus, inaudible in the large, cavernous Fichandler venue). However, in the final scene, on the night of the Obama’s Inaugural Festivities, actress Colin succeeds quite well in making the aged socialite a moving study in survival amidst the angst.

Standouts in the cast were a marvelous droll and deadpan Ann McDonough as the Sister. Every physical gesture and intonation was expertly timed to achieve ultimate comedic effect.

As Hester’s love interest, Chandler, actor Tom Wiggin had an authoritative command of the stage and a breezy, beguiling manner that was a delight to observe.

Caroline Hewitt’s portrayal of the conservative and precocious upstart Anna Fitzgerald was very finely played —with just the right balance of cunning and self-righteousness.

Lighting Design by Tyler Micoleau was fine –as was the appropriately traditional yet understated elegance of the spare Set Design by the famous Set Designer John Lee Beatty. Sartorial touches were top-notch as exemplified by Costume Designer Catherine Zuber.

(L-R) Tyler Smallwood (Young Ethan) and Caroline Hewitt (Anna Fitzgerald). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
(L-R) Tyler Smallwood (Young Ethan) and Caroline Hewitt (Anna Fitzgerald). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The City of Conversation truly embodies the conundrum that is politics in Washington, DC. It is a powerful world yet –also—a somewhat hermetically –sealed universe unto itself.

For a thought-provoking night in the theatre, do not miss Arena Stage’s The City of Conversation.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

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The City of Conversation plays through March 6, 2016 at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater’s Fichandler Stage – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.

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David Friscic
David has always had a passionate interest in the arts from acting in professional dinner theatre and community theatre to reviewing film and local theatre in college to making numerous treks to New York City to indulge his interest in live theatre. An enthusiastic interest in writing has shown itself in a BA in English/Education and an MA in English Literature. Taken together, these two interests have culminated in the logical conclusion of writing for an arts blog. David moved up and down the East Coast due to his father's job at General Electric and this has helped him to perceive the world in a very open way. After his schooling, David taught in Catholic school systems for awhile and, then, spent three years in the seminary with two years at Catholic University studying Theology and one year in a practicuum working at a church in New York State. David currently works at the National Science Foundation as a Technical Information Specialist for the Office of Polar Programs and has had the great opportunity to go to Antarctica twice and Greenland once in support of the research community. He enjoys living in Bethesda and has taken courses at the Writer's Center. David enjoys swimming, traveling, reading, and working on committees at his condo. His major interest, however, is the arts and all it encompasses---from symphony, to film, to museum treks to live theatre. He counts having lunch with Lillian Gish and meeting Lily Tomlin, Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton, Liza Minnelli and Sandy Dennis as some of the more exciting encounters of his life.

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