Sunday, April 16, 2017

With alarming resonance for today, TOTS has a political drama covering 30 years up to 2009

Calm before storm: Colin Ferris arrives at his mother's Georgetown home with his fiancee, Anna, welcomed by his aunt Jean.
What may have caused the collapse of an elite political class — self-appointed guardians of liberal democracy — receives family-drama scrutiny in "The City of Conversation."

Theatre on the Square has a production of the Anthony Giardina play on Stage 2 through April 29. The show takes a distinct turn toward melodrama in the unpalatable choice presented to the main character, a Georgetown hostess connected to Kennedy Democrats in their waning days. Nan Macy plays Hester Ferris over three decades of unsettling change. The character will not seem particularly sympathetic, even to avowed liberals of 2017, because she's distinctly a snob with blinders on about the fault lines in American society that were to elevate Ronald Reagan to the White House and now — dare we say it? — Donald Trump.

But to mention No. 45 gets us a bit ahead of ourselves. "The City of Conversation" doesn't flash forward past the inauguration of Barack Obama in his first term. There's a note of hope for the now-elderly Hester Ferris; a devastating family rift has been partially healed and the political pendulum seems to have swung back in her direction.

This production meets the challenge of sketching in the inside-the-Beltway tensions between the twilight of the Carter presidency, through Reagan's heyday at the time of the fight over the Robert Bork nomination to the Supreme Court, and up to the high point of the "audacity of hope." The Bork controversy of 1987 represents the milestone past which bipartisanship went into free fall.

It's certainly the fulcrum of this play's action. To sum up without getting cumbersome (a trait "The City of Conversation" doesn't entirely avoid), in 1979 Heather son's Colin is transforming himself from a young liberal firebrand to a Reagan conservative with the help of his wife Anna, a strong-minded young woman who takes a seat on the Washington merry-go-round more adroitly than her husband. Brought home fresh from study abroad at the London School of Economics, where she met Colin, she displays her moxie at a dinner party with Hester's beloved Chandler Harris and his Senate colleague George Mallonee. Her usefulness in the ascendancy of outsider conservatism, fueled by youthful energy, is confirmed. Heather already feels sidelined by what she takes to be a redneck regime after the glory days of Northeastern liberalism.

What emerges eight years later is a showdown between the peppery Hester and the savvy Anna over the Bork nomination. The production reminds us of the heavy artillery liberals brought to bear against Reagan's nominee with a recorded excerpt of Ted Kennedy's anti-Bork speech, which led an eventually successful charge against the nomination.

The TOTS production, directed by Jenni White, has its work cut out for it. The playwright borrows his title, we learn in the course of the play, from a description of Washington, D.C., by the novelist Henry James. This is a clue to Giardina's dialogue style, which has many Jamesian touches. It's not that he doesn't draw the characters realistically; it's simply that they tend to express themselves at the highest level of articulateness. The trouble with talky plays is that, however strongly the cast inhabits the characters and their motivations, their elaborate speeches can easily sink of their own weight.  Some of the pacing thus seems balky, and the cast is hard-pressed to match the emotional impact of what the characters have to say with their rhetoric.

Giardina is clearly trying to bring even millennials toward understanding the relevance of long-ago political celebrities and their causes. He is intense about detailing the personal costs that people often have to pay when they engage in political battles in which both careers and family life are at stake. There's a ton of name-dropping in the script, and it's packed into the dialogue in a clear attempt to indicate how the people you know and what they can do for or against you are all-important in Washington and its once-influential Georgetown section.

Shouldering most of these burdens creditably are Macy as Hester, Carey Shea as Colin and Colin's son Ethan as a young man, and Emily Bohn as Anna Fitzgerald. They have their hands full trying to keep Giardina's sparks flying. A long second-act dialogue between Hester and Anna takes forever to build (at least as seen Saturday night) and by its climax, the audience is likely to feel wrung out by all the liberal-conservative jousting for mortal stakes.

In that sense, there is a good deal of success to be credited to this production. Maybe we are supposed to feel wrung out, but in a dramatically positive way. Yet the turning point in this central battle is frankly melodramatic: private relationships blow up over public matters — a temptation of many fictional attempts to deal with capital controversies. On the plus side, the audience is likely to be grateful for an explosion so clearly defined after having to engage with so much talk leading up to it.

TOTS' choice of this play in our fraught political atmosphere makes sense, and a lot of its impact is certain to be the parallels audiences will naturally draw with the seemingly unbridgeable divides of the Trump Era. Sad!