Shortly after I left last Saturday’s matinee performance of Arena Stage’s The City of Conversation, Anthony Giardina’s play featuring a key subplot on the battle over Robert Bork’s 1987 nomination to the Supreme Court, it was reported that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had died. Seemingly minutes after that news had broken, a fierce, partisan debate broke out over whether or not President Obama should nominate Scalia’s replacement. Three cliches immediately flashed through my mind: history repeats itself, life imitates art, and timing is everything. Choose the one you like best.
Even without this coincidental timing, The City of Conversation is a terrific and exceedingly relevant production for Washington audiences in 2016. Even before the Bork subplot plays out, Giardina refers to Senator Ted Kennedy’s attempt to win over black voters in the South during his attempt to defeat incumbent President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 Democratic primaries. (Replace “Kennedy” and “Carter” with “Sanders” and “Clinton,” and the dialogue might as well have been written last week.) And the play’s bittersweet coda occurs on President Barack Obama’s first Inauguration Day in 2009, a day on which the characters imagine a future without the sort of partisan bickering that has dominated much of the proceedings to that point. In this scene, as in many others, the audience laughs, if only to avoid crying.
Yet mere topicality is not what makes this production so resonant. In his depiction of the world of Georgetown socialite and liberal doyenne Hester Ferris (a volcanic performance by Margaret Colin), Giardina vividly captures the last vestiges of a bygone era of political civility, an era that’s crumbling even as the play opens in 1979. The intimate direction of Doug Hughes and the performances of a first-rate cast invite us into a world in which politics and family are inextricably linked, often with devastating consequences. It’s The Best Man meets Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
But it’s not always pleasant to watch. As the play opens, Hester’s son Colin (Michael Simpson, brilliantly frustrated at every turn) returns home from the London School of Economics with his new fiancee, Anna (a gloriously icy Caroline Hewitt) just in time to attend Hester’s dinner party for an oily Kentucky senator (Todd Scofield, delightfully oily). Immediately we are made aware of the cracks in the mother-son relationship, cracks that widen with every witty barb that’s tossed in the Ferris living room (designed brilliantly for the round by John Lee Beatty).
The stakes of the play are elevated to new heights in the second act, as the action leaps eight years ahead to the Bork controversy. Hester, licking her wounds from the Reagan Revolution, fights behind the scenes to block Bork’s nomination, while Colin and Anna, on the front lines of said revolution, fight for it. In the balance hangs six-year-old Ethan (Tyler Smallwood), Hester’s grandson. As the avatar of the aforementioned bygone era of civility, Hester is taken aback by the cold ruthlessness of her daughter-in-law, who is all too eager to conflate the political and the personal. Their vicious contretemps forms the fulcrum of the play.
It’s actually almost uncomfortable to watch. For one, Giardina’s characters occasionally serve too neatly as mouthpieces for their respective generational viewpoints, and as such the debate can seem a bit artificial. But it’s not hard to imagine that arguments like this did occur. It’s the corrosive influence, Giardina argues, of “This Town,” a term that’s used several times throughout the production. (Each and every one of these utterances made me grimace, and not because they were stilted, but precisely because they felt so natural.)
The degree to which the rest of the country truly hates Washington, D.C., is up for debate, of course, but the fact that the debate exists in the first place is telling. The City of Conversation forces us to analyze closely the two sides in this rift: Giardina, Hughes, and the cast so comprehensively humanize their reprehensible characters that we’re forced to reevaluate which side we were on to begin with. The production gives us no choice but to grapple with how the political climate got this bad, and to examine whether or not we can ever return to that bygone era that the play fondly memorializes.
Justice Scalia’s relationship with his ideological foil, fellow Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was prominently mentioned in obituaries of the late jurist. Although they clashed frequently on the bench, Scalia and Ginsburg were able to put away their partisan differences when the working day was over and enjoy a close personal friendship. Hester Ferris would have loved them.
The play runs to March 6 at Arena Stage, 1100 6th St. SW. $55–$90. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.
Handout photo by C. Stanley Photography.