Monday, May 4, 2015


By Toby Zinman



By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer 

"Dinner is always about something."  Or so it was back in the heyday of the D.C. political dinner party, where some crucial vote on some piece of legislation was the hidden agenda, followed by cognac and cigars. This is the 1979 world of the first act of Anthony Giardina's new play, The City of Conversation, when Carter was President and thin, rich, brittle, shrewd hostesses wielded liberal power with wit and charm. It's worth here remembering the Washington adage: "If you don't have a seat at the table, then you're probably on the menu."

The doyenne of the Washington of Giardina's play is Hester Ferris, played by the splendid Jan Maxwell. She is an impassioned liberal and the plot will turn, in the second act, on her commitment to defeating Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court.  The year is 1987 and her son, a dim bulb, brings home a Reaganite wife (Kristen Bush) who is ruthless, ambitious and knows her enemy when she sees her.

Hester is ultimately confronted—as are we--with the play's central challenge: when you have to choose between sociopolitical ideals and family, what do you do?

This is revealed but unresolved in the third act; it is the night of the Obama inauguration and her grandson, now a grown man (Michael Simpson) visits with his gay, black partner, full of hurt feelings and do-gooder outrage, only to be asked by his now-ancient grandmother, "Would you trade the rights we won you just so we could have gone on?" 

Director Doug Hughes keeps the tension taut and the issues clear.  It is surprisingly moving, especially as a portrait of a woman of a particular kind of courage (and especially seeing it on Mother's Day), although I wonder how The City of Conversation would play to an audience that is not as reliably liberal as a Lincoln Center crowd. Or to a younger, downtown crowd who may not actually know recognize the names Robert Bork and Ollie North.

The set, designed by John Lee Beatty, is a Georgetown room, looking like a cross between a men's club and a hotel suite; this is a room built on protocol, on solid old money, remaining impersonal and unchanged through the decades.

This behind-the-scenes play makes an interesting companion piece to All the Way, the b-t-s play about Lyndon Johnson's presidency now running on Broadway.  Both suggest that politics back in the day required finesse and duplicity, although in The City of Conversation, there's more of Noel Coward than there is in LBJ's Will Rogers. None of these hostesses could have foreseen the crassness of TV hate ads and celebrity worship that now dominate political power struggles.  Apparently, the art of conversation—by articulate people who have thought through their commitments- cannot survive twitter or blogs.

Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center, NY. Through July 6. Tickets $87.

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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