What is the personal price of political change? In what coin is it paid? And when does it become too expensive? These are the questions that confront Hester Ferris in The City of Conversation, an ultimately evocative and absorbing new play by Anthony Giardina that you will talk about long after you leave Lincoln Center Theater.
With a fine cast led by Jan Maxwell and directed with mounting tension by Doug Hughes, The City of Conversation covers three decades of America's political roller-coaster, from the final year of the Carter Administration to the inauguration of President Obama.
As the lights come up, a voiceover is played of Carter warning in 1979 that a gap has opened between the American people and their government. If the next 30 years produced radical changes in the general acceptance of gay and lesbian couples, advances for women's rights, and the election of a black president, that gap of the nation's faith in its politicians in Washington has yawned into a chasm.
Hester is a throwback to a time when American policy was forged at Georgetown dinner parties, and she likes to recount how President Kennedy huddled with Isaiah Berlin at the Alsops across the street on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis. She is now backing Ted Kennedy's flirtation with challenging Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination.
In a bid for black support in his quest to unseat Carter, Kennedy is pushing a bill that would bar federal judges from belonging to all-white organizations, and Hester has invited a Kentucky senator to dinner to persuade him to support it. Hester has been in a long-term relationship with a married senator named Chandler Harris, and it will be he who makes the pitch to the Southerner to back Kennedy's bill. The first sign of trouble comes when her son Colin arrives home a day early from the London School of Economics with a fiancée in tow.
As it turns out, the fiancée is an attractive blonde from Minnesota named Anna and she is a rabid neo-Con. Before the night is over Anna will crash the sanctum of male-only after-dinner talk, light up a cigar, and convince the Kentucky senator there is nothing wrong with federal judges knocking back mint juleps and rubbing lily-white elbows with their chums in segregated country clubs.
Anna goes on to predict that the then governor of California will ride the voters' disenchantment with Washington that Carter warned about into the White House no matter who the Democrats run. By the end of the evening she has a job offer from the Kentucky senator.
As lively as this confrontation is, however, a political argument over dinner, no matter how spirited, does not make great theater. The conflict that turns Giardina's play into real drama comes in the second act. We are now deep into President Reagan's second term and he has just nominated Robert Bork to be a justice on the Supreme Court.
Anna and Colin are now married, both staunch Reagan supporters with jobs that depend on their loyalty to the administration. And they have a 6-year-old son, Ethan, who is the delight of his grandmother Hester's life. Hester and her war widowed sister, Jean, have surreptitiously been working against Bork's confirmation despite having promised Anna and Colin to stay out of the fight.
At the time of the play, the Senate hearings on the nomination are underway and it is anybody's guess how the vote will go. As a U.S. Circuit Court judge many of Bork's rulings had alarmed leaders of civil rights, gay rights, and women's rights groups, all of which oppose his confirmation. Without spoiling the drama of a play, the political feud presents Hester with a dilemma that tears at the heart.
In making such a quandary plausible, Giardina had to come up with an issue that could have had dire ramifications for the kind of country we live in. The Bork nomination was just such a concern. A final scene set on the night of President Obama's inauguration presents the arguments for both sides of the decision Hester finally makes, a balance sheet of sorts that weighs the progress American society has made against the personal loss it has cost.
As Hester, Jan Maxwell is a tigress fighting ferociously for what she believes is just and right. As Anna, Kristen Bush is cold and calculating in a take-no-prisoners position that foreshadows the Tea Party. Michael Simpson is convincing both as Colin and his grown son Ethan, and Beth Dixon delivers an excellent turn as Jean, the most sensible and likable character onstage.