Partisan rancor in Washington has poisoned the vine. Gone is the golden era of an American family united in spite of our differences. Today there are only conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats prevented from compromise by deeply held grudges. This conventional wisdom is the premise of The City of Conversation, a new play by Anthony Giardina about a household bitterly divided over a 30-year span. Hester Ferris (Jan Maxwell), a liberal luminary whose Georgetown dinner parties nurture bipartisan civilities, becomes distraught when her son (Michael Simpson) and daughter-in-law (Kristen Bush) embrace Reaganism.
In three acts, the play hops from the Carter administration’s twilight to Robert Bork’s 1987 Supreme Court nomination to Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Giardina puts a finger, squarely and thoughtfully, on emotional political battles that gradually eroded any aspiration for unity in the Ferris family, as in the Capitol. Unfortunately, the awkward dialogue and scene structures leave the principals to recite far too much clunky oratory, and they don’t come off well. (Director Doug Hughes fares better with the supporting cast.) The inveterate Jan Maxwell makes a mighty effort as tenacious Hester, but there’s little charm or warmth written into the role. The City of Conversation gives us an elaborate narrative spanning epochs, only to confirm what we already knew: Distrust and misunderstanding run deep in domestic politics, and the whole nation suffers from the rift.