Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

The City of Conversation
Arena Stage
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's reviews of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Between Riverside and Crazy and The Glass Menagerie and her announcement of the 2015 Helen Hayes Awards Nominations

Margaret Colin
Photo by C. Stanley Photography
Washington, home of self-important cocktail party chatter, is the subject of—and the perfect city for—The City of Conversation, Anthony Giardina's comedy of politics and manners now at the Fichandler Stage at Arena Stage.

Giardina considers partisanship and its limits through the character of Hester Ferris (Margaret Colin), a Georgetown hostess of the type who once brought political antagonists together over dinner and drinks: a service she considers "an arm of the government" for helping the players forge compromises. In three scenes, the play follows Hester from late in the Carter administration to the fight over Ronald Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, and ultimately the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Hester is a member of the Establishment Left, supporting liberal causes and the Kennedys while oblivious to her privileges as a wealthy woman with powerful friends. She can reminisce fondly about her son Colin (Michael Simpson) inviting a group of his scruffy Vietnam War protester friends to hang out in the family mansion, but she also treats her widowed sister Jean (Ann McDonough) like the help.

The first scene, set in 1979, brings Hester together with Colin and his fiancée Anna Fitzgerald (Caroline Hewitt); they met while studying at the London School of Economics. Anna portrays herself as a simple, salt-of-the-earth conservative from Minnesota who supports Reagan because she sees Democratic policies as paternalistic, forcing people to behave "properly." Where Hester is discreet in presenting her agendas, Anna prefers to tangle with male politicians with a cigar in one hand and a glass of cognac in the other while "the ladies" retire to another room.

Family relations reach a crisis point when Hester goes head to head with Colin and Anna over the Bork nomination in 1987. Both sides are convinced of their rightness, trapping Hester's 6-year-old grandson Ethan (Tyler Smallwood) in the middle. Note: the playwright drops a large piece of foreshadowing in this scene.

By 2009, the pendulum has swung back again. The adult Ethan (now played by Simpson) shows up at his grandmother's house to settle some issues before attending an inauguration party.

Director Doug Hughes also staged the play's premiere in New York, where Simpson originated his roles. The entire ensemble does beautifully, anchored by Colin's poise and unwavering sense of what is right, on John Lee Beatty's luxurious set (the beautifully worn carpets, the deep upholstery) with Catherine Zuber's spot-on costumes and Tyler Micoleau's elegant lighting.

Arena Stage
The City of Conversation
January 29th - March 6th
By Anthony Giardina
Jean Swift: Ann McDonough
Colin Ferris/Ethan Ferris: Michael Simpson
Anna Fitzgerald: Caroline Hewitt
Hester Ferris: Margaret Colin
George Mallonee: Todd Scofield
Chandler Harris: Tom Wiggin
Carolyn Mallonee: Jjana Valentiner
Ethan Ferris (age 6): Tyler Smallwood
Donald Logan: Freddie Bennett
Directed by Doug Hughes
Fichandler Stage, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, Sixth and Maine avenues SW Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or

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