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“The City of Conversation” is great fun for politics junkies

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Jan Maxwell as Hester Ferris, photo Stephanie Berger.

Jan Maxwell as Hester Ferris, photo Stephanie Berger.

By Lucy Komisar

It starts in a Georgetown drawing room. Now you already know half the juicy story by Anthony Giardina, presented by Lincoln Center Theater. It’s Washington politics. Insider stuff. In this case, as usual, a conflict between liberals and conservatives. With a little morality thrown in. You know which ones are moral and which are opportunists, right? (They say that liberals become playwrights and conservatives become bankers.)

Giardina’s play, directed with panache by Doug Hughes, is a very clever and entertaining take on dealing in Washington over the decades from Jimmy Carter to the inauguration of Barak Obama. With a family drama to tie up the loose ends. Accomplished director Hughes keeps it this side of TV drama, of which there are now several of the genre.

Hester Ferris (Jan Maxwell as a smooth, glamorous hostess whose veneer covers inner toughness) is very well connected. It’s not clear if her money comes from family or former husband, as she doesn’t seem to have a paid job. But she has a fine Georgetown townhouse. (Sets by John Lee Beatty.) And gorgeous clothes. (Costumes by Catherine Zuber.) And she likes dealing in politics, effecting change on the liberal side.

Kristen Bush as Anna Fitzgerald, Michael Simpson as Colin Ferris, Jan Maxwell as his mother Hester,  photo Stephanie Berger.

Kristen Bush as Anna Fitzgerald, Michael Simpson as Colin Ferris, Jan Maxwell as his mother Hester,
photo Stephanie Berger.

Hester has arranged a dinner for Kentucky “good ole boy” Senator George Mallonee (John Aylward) and his wife Carolyn (Barbara Garrick) to persuade him that the Judiciary Committee shouldn’t approve judicial candidates who belong to all-white country clubs. (Yes, this was an issue in the late 70s.)

The fourth at dinner will be her boyfriend, Chandler Harris (Kevin O’Rourke), a (married) liberal senator from a border state.

Then an unexpected fifth and sixth arrive, her son Colin (Michael Simpson) and his girlfriend Anna Fitzgerald (Kristen Bush), who weren’t expected till a day later. They are returning from the London School of Economics, he a bit bedraggled and long-haired, she with sexy high boots. She slips readily into the slinky black dress Hester lends her for the dinner. After dinner, she joins the Kentucky senator for a cigar. She slips just as easily into his conservative politics.

John Aylward as Sen. Malloneee, Kristen Bush as Anna, Kevin O'Rouke as Sen. Harris, Jan Maxwell as Hester Ferris, photo Stephanie Berger.

John Aylward as Sen. Malloneee, Kristen Bush as Anna, Kevin O’Rouke as Sen. Harris, Jan Maxwell as Hester Ferris, photo Stephanie Berger.

As the evening wears on, the early arrival turns out not to be a mistake by the manipulative Anna, who advanced travel plans when she heard by chance from Hester’s sister Jean (Beth Dixon) about the dinner with an important conservative senator. Though Colin went to Sidwell Friends (the trendy liberal private school where the Clintons and others sent their kids), he and his girlfriend are right-wingers. Anna wants “a bill declaring the 60s officially over.” She’s for Ronald Reagan’s belief in “personal responsibility.” That’s Reaganspeak for government cash for wealthy corporations and uplifting advice for struggling citizens.

Transition to 1987, the Reagan presidency. Anna is working for the Justice Department. She is big for Ollie North. No mention of his evading personal responsibility as well as federal law by illegally passing weapons to the Contras. But the New York audience knew.

Colin, now sporting a mustache, sideburns and slicked back hair, is on staff of a conservative New Hampshire senator. Hester is working against Reagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court of ultra-conservative Robert Bork.

Luke Niehaus as young Ethan Ferris, Jan Maxwell as his grandmother Hester, photo Stephanie Berger.

Luke Niehaus as young Ethan Ferris, Jan Maxwell as his grandmother Hester, photo Stephanie Berger.

She says, “Approving the sterilization of women is not a subject that makes me want to take up my knitting and retire.” Bork had backed a policy by a West Virginia chemical plant that required women, whose future unborn children might be harmed by the chemicals, to be sterilized or quit. Rather than the plant institute safety procedures. Five women got sterilized to keep their jobs.

Hester’s efforts to derail Bork would drive a wedge between her and her son and now daughter-in-law and estrange her from Ethan (Luke Niehaus), the 6-year-old grandson she loves.

Years later, we meet grown-up Ethan (Michael Simpson) who has worked with Move-on for the election of Obama. We learn that his as parents are divorced. You get the feeling that Colin was not ambitious enough for Anna. Ethan’s own personal setup seems a bit too pat, more like a feel-good sit-com than a Broadway play.

That aside, it’s an engrossing and smartly acted production. Maxwell, as usual, commands the stage and Kristen Bush is a good foil as the self-promoting Anna.

“The City of Conversation.” Written by Anthony Giardina; directed by Doug Hughes. Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, 165 West 65th Street, New York City. Running time 2 hours. 212-239-6200, lct.org. Opened May 5, 2014 ; closes June 22, 2014. 6/1/14. Review on New York Theatre Wire.