Anthony Giardina’s drama about a Washington, D.C. family across the decades lives up to its title in one way: It’s talky enough to converse you to death. The City of Conversation tracks ebbs and flows of governmental power and its popular perception as seen from the parlor of an influential liberal socialite, Hester Ferris (Lia D. Mortensen), the kind who once held dinner parties that stood to facilitate across-the-aisle dealmaking among the Beltway’s menfolk.
In the play’s opening scene, she’s preparing to host just such a gathering in the late 1970s, when Hester is gearing up support for Ted Kennedy to primary President Carter and stave off what we now know as the Reagan Revolution. Hester’s evening is rocked, a bit, by unexpected early emissaries of the revolution: her son, Colin (Greg Matthew Anderson), and his new fiancée, Anna (Mattie Hawkinson). Sizing up Anna and her populist, make-America-good-again rhetoric, Hester quickly invokes All About Eve.
She’s not wrong, as the action jumps to Reagan’s second term and the eve of the confirmation hearings on Robert Bork. Both Colin and Anna are now Republican operatives, with the icy, ambitious Anna more on the rise than her ineffectual husband; Hester’s principles remain unchanged, but a family detente allows her to spoil her young grandson—until it’s discovered Hester has been working behind the scenes in ways that go against her son’s political prospects.
A final scene, set on the evening of President Obama’s inauguration and featuring a shaky reunion between an aged Hester and her now-adult grandson (Anderson again), plays out essentially as telegraphed. Though finely acted by director Marti Lyons’s Northlight cast, we’re left wondering at the ultimate thrust of Giardina’s conversation (if not at the lean of his politics). The playwright’s suggestion, it seems, is that the polarization of our politics over the last four decades can be reduced to a family affair; moreover, we perhaps should miss the lost gentility of back-room deals in moneyed neighborhoods.
Northlight Theatre. By Anthony Giardina. Directed by Marti Lyons. With Lia D. Mortensen, Greg Matthew Andersen, Mattie Hawkinson, Natalie West. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.