Kristen Bush and Jan Maxwell star in Anthony Giardina's The City of Conversation, directed by Doug Hughes, at Lincoln Center Theater.
Kristen Bush and Jan Maxwell star in Anthony Giardina's The City of Conversation, directed by Doug Hughes, at Lincoln Center Theater.
(© Stephanie Berger)

Politics get uncomfortably personal in Anthony Giardina's thrilling new tale of Washington intrigue, The City of Conversation, now making its world premiere at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. OK, so that PBS-documentary title doesn't exactly scream "nonstop thrills," but anyone who has ever encountered a political disagreement with a family member (that's to say, most Americans) will find it hard to disengage from this hard-hitting family drama. Giardina offers a fascinating vision of where our country has been, where we are, and where we might be headed. Hint: It doesn't look that different from the past.

According to Giardina, things weren't so personal just a half century ago: There was a time when policy was decided over Cognac and cigars at fancy Georgetown dinner parties. Democrats rubbed elbows with Republicans and while they had their differences, there was a general consensus toward liberalism and the expansion of the state. Hester Ferris (Jan Maxwell) is a pillar of this world. She's the wife of Senator Chandler Harris (Kevin O'Rourke). Both are staunch Kennedy Democrats, willing to break out the nice China and good Scotch to win a vote for the team.

When the play begins, their world is already on its way out. In the darkness, we hear Jimmy Carter's infamous "Malaise Speech" of 1979: "The gap between our citizens and government has never been so wide," the president warns. Mark Bennett's well-researched sound design gives us an immediate sense of time, freeing the actors from such exposition.

Lights up on the Ferris' stately Georgetown home. Set designer John Lee Beatty, a master of real-estate porn for the stage, once again makes us salivate from the opulence: A portrait of an Adams-era statesman hangs over the mantle. A fire crackles in the hearth. Framed photos of the Ferrises with various dignitaries strategically populate wooden end tables around the room. This is the natural habitat of the American aristocracy.

Hester is planning a dinner party for Kentucky Senator George Mallonee (John Aylward) in an effort to secure his backing for a key piece of legislation sponsored by Senator Ted Kennedy. Kennedy plans to challenge Carter for the Democratic nomination for president and he needs a victory to show he can get things done. (Hester calls Carter "The President's seat-warmer.")

Hester's plans are unexpectedly thwarted by the arrival of her son, Colin (Michael Simpson), and his new fiancée, Anna (Kristen Bush). Anna is a foot solider in Reagan's army. She resents the old Georgetown establishment for its arrogance, the way it has systematically ignored people like her. She's ready to run these self-styled elites out of town. She's also converted Colin to her side, much to Hester's horror.

By 1987, Anna has a job in Reagan's justice department. She and Colin have a son, Ethan (Luke Niehaus). Beaten back by the Conservative revolution, Hester receives a second wind in the fight to keep Robert Bork off the Supreme Court. Yet when Anna discovers that Hester has been running a letter campaign against Bork, she threatens to cut off access to Ethan unless Hester stops. "Don't you care about him," Colin asks, going along with his wife's cynical ultimatum.

Anna is a perfect representative for her movement, a group of uncompromising true believers who would rather burn the house down than allow anyone else inside. (By contrast, Hester would simply passive-aggressively change the locks.) Giardina never fully succeeds in developing Anna into a sympathetic character (which would have made this a truly great play). Instead, she just feels like a terrorist in a pantsuit, her tight bun cutting off the flow of oxygen to her brain.

Bush plays Anna with a cold cruelty that barely masks a deep and sincere feeling of being wronged by these Georgetown bullies. Still, in explaining her sense of injustice, she falls back on the same stale insurgent talking points. In fairness, this could just be a refection of the intellectual bankruptcy of the Conservative movement, rather than Giardina's skill as a dramatist.

Still, there can be no doubt about what side the playwright is on. A third act dripping with dramatic irony and just desserts makes this play feel a bit like a liberal revenge fantasy. That's not to say that Hester and her ilk don't come in for a fair amount of criticism: Maxwell has a way of delivering missives against her "mediocre" son that are absolutely withering. You may laugh, but you question her wisdom: Just because you think your son is not that bright, do you need to tell him? You also understand Anna's frustration a little better, even if you can never understand her scorched earth methods.

Director Doug Hughes has unpacked these complex family dynamics, giving every beat of this dense play the attention to detail it rightly deserves. The relationships feel ancient and the hurt, very real. At one point, Maxwell shakes with rage as she WASPily tries to contain her fury.

No matter your political persuasion, you're very likely to feel flashes of rage and frustration. Giardina has created a microcosm of American society in one family: He brutally shows how that family is ripped apart and, more hopefully, how it could be sewn back together. As we navigate another turning point in American politics, it's a timely warning of the pitfalls of change without respect for opposing views.