Horizon Theatre: City of Conversation

I caught Anthony Giardina’s City of Conversation at Horizon Theatre yesterday evening and I have to say that it is the prefect venue for a show like this. The play takes place entirely in a living room and the positioning of seating around two ‘walls’ made for an intimate, almost voyeuristic view into the lives of this Georgetown family.

The story takes place along three time periods: the second to last years of the Carter and Reagan administrations and the inauguration of Obama. We meet the family as Hester Ferris, a Georgetown socialite played by Tess Malis Kincaid, is preparing for a dinner party where her lover, a liberal Senator and Ted Kennedy ally, will try to get support from a Kentucky Senator for a bill that would require judicial nominees give up membership in restricted clubs. Things go awry when her son Colin, played by Justin Walker, brings home Anna Fitzgerald, his fiancé, performed by Rachel Garner, a day earlier than expected.

Hester is immediately put off by Anna. Sensing her ambition, she immediately begins cutting her down. Anna, however, doesn’t seem fazed and ultimately wins the day when, after refusing to let the Senator’s do their “men’s business” alone in the sitting room, interjects some boilerplate Reaganite populism to spoil any chances of winning the Kentucky Senator’s support for the bill while also winning a position on the Senator’s staff for herself.

We next see the family in the 80’s as the scene is introduced by Ted Kennedy’s speech against Robert Bork. While babysitting Colin and Anna’s child, Ethan, Hester and her sister have composed a letter in opposition to Bork’s nomination to be published in a State where a Senator is still undecided. It turns out that Colin and Anna are both working on Bork’s confirmation and have asked that Hester stay out of things on Colin’s behalf. After Hester fails to give an exhausted Anna any of the emotional support that her daughter-in-law was seeking after confiding her insecurities as a mother, Anna discovers Hester’s letter and she and Colin break with her and ban her from ever seeing Ethan again.

Later we meet a grown Ethan, also played by Justin Walker, who is in DC where he has dropped in on Hester. He and his partner have worked with MoveOn.org on the Obama campaign and have tickets to two inaugural parties. Ethan’s partner is impressed by all of the photographs of important politicians and political events in Hester’s house and Ethan knows very little about it. It is revealed that the rift between Hester and Colin was never healed and this is the first meeting between Ethan and Hester since 1987. Ethan and Hester don’t hit it off: Ethan is a populist, albeit a liberal one, and takes as negative a view of Hester’s elitist insider view of politics as his mother did. He challenges her for giving him up for her ideals and it looks like their first adult meeting will go terribly when they ultimately resolve to go to the inaugural ball together.

Overall, the script was great. The resolution that reconciles Hester and Ethan at the end isn’t quite realistic but it is satisfactory. I think that everyone comes across as equally villain and victim: the emotions and humanity behind both sides of each conflict are laid bare and we are constantly reminded that these are humans an not just political positions. It’s easy to understand why Anna and Colin would feel hurt that Hester is working against them — especially with Hester’s constant undercutting of Anna — but it is also easy to sympathize with Hester for not wanting to give in to being emotionally blackmailed into disenfranchisement. The overall exploration of the way that political rancor had gone from something that people set aside when they kicked off their shoes at the end of the day to becoming something so personal that it could tear apart families we very well done. I also appreciate the irony of Hester, the 2nd wave feminist who could not operate directly in politics and who appears confident in the way that she raised her son, being contrasted with Anna, the conservative who appreciates Senator’s pinching her butt, being a career congressional staffer who failed to figure out how to feel secure and confident in her role in her family.

The stagecraft of this production was good, as well. The sitting room was well designed and outfitted with period and location appropriate furnishings and decorations. The entrances to the room gave room for very naturalistic entrances by the actors and even included stairs to a second story. And I already mentioned that the semi-round seating really brought us into the intimacy of the family home.

Where this production fell short, however, was in the acting. Kincaid is hammish and she frequently flubbed her lines, particularly in the beginning. Her Hester is obnoxiously loud and, despite being from Arkansas and living in Georgetown, inexplicably has a Connecticut accent. You don’t see the difference between her social and personal personas: she comes across as insincere and overly grand even when she’s supposed to be showing us that she really loves young Ethan, which leaves the boy coming across more as a burden to her and his loss doesn’t seem as meaningful. This is an even larger flaw when you consider that the point of the play is to show how people used to wear their political personas as suits that they took off when outside of the public eye.

Walker was similarly loud, which I suppose might be appropriate were it not for the fact that he was supposed to be meek, spineless, and lacking the ambition of the two women in his life. Although the words seemed to suggest that Colin was letting Anna make his decisions for him, his demeanor displayed much more agency than was appropriate. I only ever found him believable when he was playing Ethan, who came across as meek and humble as Colin was probably written to be.

Although I found her political positions abhorrent, I found myself favoring Anna just because Garner played her better than Kincaid and Walker played their characters. Anna’s political arguments felt sincere and her pain at Hester’s refusal to treat her with the least respect was more realistic than Kincaid made Hester’s disdain.

The rest of the supporting cast was excellent, as well, which helped smooth the play out a lot. In this case, I think that a good script and decent production values went a long way to overcoming what I felt was poor acting by the lead actors. Overall, I thought that it was a reasonably good production of a very good play and I enjoyed it a lot.

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