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A CurtainUp DC Review
The City of Conversation
"We are an arm of the government" — Hester Ferris
The City of Conversation
Margaret Colin as Hester Ferris (C. Stanley Photography)
There was a time, believe it or not, when the nation's political capitol, was a place of civilized discourse (also sexual intercourse) that did not make partisan or sensational headlines. Anthony Giardina's The City of Conversation, at Arena Stage, opens with a recording of Frank Sinatra softly crooning sweet nothings while Hester Ferris, who has sufficient personal funds to live in Georgetown and to entertain what are now called bold-faced names, is getting ready for the dinner party she will host. The time is 1979.

It is true that in those days, before most ambitious women were in the work force, the well-educated, well-heeled and well informed grand dames who lived and reigned in the elite neighborhood of Georgetown, held a special kind of power. They were private citizens who brought to their elegant dining tables movers and shakers of all stripes with a defined agenda and hope that action born of compromise would follow. The food was terrible but the booze flowed. So did conversation.

Set designer John Lee Beatty and costume designer Catherine Zuber have captured the look of Washington in the late '70's: oriental carpets, silver trays laden with heavy cut glass decanters, dresses and skirts -- no trouser suits for women in those days. The script and Doug Hughes's direction emphasize the civility of the times.

And then there is Hester Ferris. Underneath the character's charm and powers of persuasion there's a tough cookie who knows that she is a catalyst. Margaret Colin is excellent in the part — sweet but conniving when she wants to be, tough and judgmental with her son (Michael Simpson) and his fiancee (Caroline Hewitt) whose performances do their parts no favors. As a grandmother Hester is fun, tolerant and loving.

Grim-faced with a walk that suggests that her feet (as well as her pride) hurt, Ann McDonough as Hester's sister/factotum is also excellent. Sometimes it's the smaller parts that stay with you. This is one of them. Todd Scofield's cornpone, home spun Kentucky senator, George Mallonee, is another.

In Act 2, it's January 2009, the time of President Obama's inauguration. Cue the music: Etta James singing "At Last." A lot has changed since 1979. Gone are the intimate dinner parties and most of the ladies who hosted them. Gone are such quaint/insulting customs as the separation of men and women after a meal so that the men could talk business and the women powder their noses (and gossip.) Gone too are many of the niceties of that era. Social life for those in office or wish to be has been taken over in large part by lobbyists, pr promotions, and fundraisers. There are however compensations.

Hester and Jean are showing their age but they've lived long enough to see many of the issues they promoted materialize and entertaining moved out of homes. A black has become President and gays can now come out of the closet without fear. Many women are having careers rather than dinner parties and politicians on opposing sides are less likely to talk to one another over drinks or a meal.

Washingtonians like to find fault with plays and movies about their town but Giardina's conflicts are real. His ideas are perceptive and some of his one-liners are funny. Washingtonians still hold conversations and dinners but too many are limited to the like-minded.

For a review of the play's New York premiere production go here .

The City of Conversation by Anthony Giardina
Directed by Doug Hughes
Set by John Lee Beatty
Costumes by Catherine Zuber
Lighting by Tyler Micoleau
Cast: Ann McDonough (Jean Swift); Michael Simpson (Colin Ferris/Ethan Ferris); Caroline Hewitt (Anna Fitzgerald); Margaret Colin (Hester Ferris); Todd Scofield (George Mallonee); Tom Wiggin (Chandler Harris); Jjana Valentiner (Carolyn Mallonee); Tyler Smallwood (Ethan Ferris, age 6); Freddie Bennett (Donald Logan); Caeden White (Ethan Ferris u/s).
Run time: Two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission.
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC; February 10 to March 6, 2016; Tickets: $40 to $90;; 202-554-9066.
Review by Susan Davidson based on February 10, 2016 matinee performance.
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