“Dinner, you have to understand, is always about something,” says the son of a Washington hostess, explaining the local power rituals to his naïve, if ambitious, girlfriend. At his mother’s glamorous evenings, he points out, there’s a professed agenda involving entertainment and also, beneath it, a profound one involving argument. But for Hester Ferris, a Pamela Harriman-like Democratic doyenne whom we follow over the course of 30 years, the gap between the professed and the profound is very slim: Argument is entertainment. Others may feel differently.
Like Hester’s dinners, Anthony Giardina’s perplexing new melodrama, The City of Conversation, is about something: the destruction of political comity that resulted (the play suggests) from the barbarian invasion of the Reaganauts in 1980. Unfortunately this argument is planted in an entertainment that can’t support it. For Hester is not just Colin’s doting yet disapproving mother, the paramour of a center-left senator, and the imperious star in the solar system of her own Georgetown ménage. She’s also, like everyone else in the play, an awkward representative of an abstract position, in her case the idea that politics at its best is a form of sociability:
One of the nice things, I always believed, about Georgetown, was the way we all used to lay down our arms at the end of the day and become convivial. As if to say, though the battles are very real, we are all finally people, and we have to rest and break bread together in order to get up the next day and do battle again.
Her vision emphasizes charm, passion, forgiveness — and women, who would otherwise, at the time, have little access to the means of power.
In 1979, when we meet Hester, the means are dinners. The one we find her in curlers for as the play begins is designed to nudge a Kentucky senator to vote for a bill that would require judicial appointees to renounce membership in whites-only clubs. Giardina sets up the stakes too obviously: If the bill passes, Hester’s lover, the senator, may be chosen as the vice-presidential candidate on the ticket headed by Teddy Kennedy, who has proposed the bill on the eve of his run to take the Democratic nomination from the incumbent, Jimmy Carter. (Naturally, Hester is a wholehearted follower of the Kennedy cult; the Carters didn’t know how to entertain.) Her own power would also increase; her long-range plans for her son’s government career would fall into line. And, of course, good would be done, not just as an afterthought.
But young Colin has returned from the London School of Economics with more than the new girlfriend, an All About Eve type called Anna. He has also picked up some of her anti-elite, proto-Reagan politics. And so, as Anna becomes surprisingly aggressive during the cigars-and-brandy portion of the evening, insinuating into the proceedings an almost comically demagogic argument for the forgotten little man, the proxy war within the family is established. By the end of Act One we understand that if Hester wins the political battle she will eventually lose the personal one. Act Two shows us the “eventually,” as she and Colin, now a Senate staffer, find themselves on opposite sides of the 1987 Bork nomination fight. A final scene brings the action to the evening of Obama’s inauguration in 2009 for a melancholy look at the tote board.
It’s fascinating on paper but too neat onstage. Neat and yet ludicrous: The more sense the plot makes as politics, the less sense it makes as family drama. In order to keep the characters lined up with their positions, the playwright pushes them into irrational behavior as humans, often working directly in contradiction to their own established goals. Hester almost immediately insults Anna upon her arrival; Anna, hoping to learn the ropes of Washington from Hester, nevertheless insults her right back. Dinner-table diplomacy looks a lot like condescension when it isn’t devolving into outright catfights. By Act Two, pretty much everyone is a monster regardless of politics, not because it’s in their nature but because the play needs climactic encounters that can take place in a living room instead of the Capitol.
It’s bad enough that the character you’re meant to sympathize with is only marginally less repellent than the one you’re supposed to disdain; there’s little even the estimable Jan Maxwell can do to make something coherent from Hester’s contrivances. (The rest of the cast, save Beth Dixon as Hester’s sister, fare worse, under Doug Hughes’s muddled direction.) In the end, the political story sinks with the family drama, for how much credence can we put in Hester’s dream of conviviality when she says things to Anna — by now her daughter-in-law — like “You will bring this country down out of smug ignorance”? (What she says to Colin is even worse.) Instead of a modern take on a Lillian Hellman drama, which might have been the playwright’s aim, we get a play filled with raging Lillian Hellmans, vile and insecure. Perle Mesta would have cut them all.
The City of Conversation is at The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater through June 22.