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Ferris Wheel: Politics Is All in the Family

Ed Rampell: The third act, set in 2009, raises an important question: Should people allow politics to divide relatives and friends?
CITY OF CONVERSATIONS

Steven Culp and Christine Lahti. Photo Credit: Kevin Parry for The Wallis

THE CITY OF CONVERSATIONS Theater Review

Playwright Anthony Giardina’s The City of Conversations has an interesting premise: Beginning in 1979 with the Carter presidency, Conversations follows the evolution of American politics for 30 years through the lens of one family. Hester Ferris (Emmy winner Christine Lahti, who now has a recurring role in CBS’ Hawaii Five-O retread as Steve McGarrett’s cunning, mysterious mother with a covert past) is the estimable matriarch of a political clan that has held sway via her influential perch as a Georgetown hostess over the nation’s capital, where the parties you throw can be as important as the party you belong to.

In Act I, home from graduate school, her longhaired son Colin (Jason Ritter, whose stage and screen credits include Wandy Wasserstein’s Third, HBO’s Girls and the new Susan Sarandon comedy The Meddler) and his conniving Minnesota fiancée Anna Fitzgerald (British actress Georgia King, whose scheming, leggy blonde gives Reese Witherspoon’s Machiavellian Republican in 1999’s Election a run for her money) conveniently show up a night earlier than planned in order to crash one of Hester’s renowned soirees, where this Washington doyenne has played kingmaker since at least the Kennedy years.

CITY OF CONVERSATIONS

Jason Ritter and Johnny Ramey.

Delilah-like, the overbearing Hester fusses over Colin’s tresses, imploring him to get a haircut before the posh party Teddy Kennedy is expected to attend. And Hester visibly recoils at and positively disdains Anna’s thigh-high, purplish, velvety boots. It seems that Hester is on the rightwing side of the so-called “culture wars,” and that Colin and Anna represent the counterculture and a breath of fresh air in the stifling firmament of Washington in this three-acter with one intermission at Beverly Hills’ Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

But in fact, [PLOT SPOILER ALERT!] the only uprising this hippie-style couple is down for is the oncoming onslaught of the Reagan Revolution. (The fact that they attended the London School of Economics should have been a tip off.) As for Hesther, she can still smell a whiff of Camelot. So either Giardina is confused and being counterintuitive or he is insightfully pointing out that beneath the surface - especially in politics, which makes strange bedfellows - things aren’t always as they appear to be. In any case, Act I plants the seeds of a clash that erupts in Conversations’ second act, which reaches the boiling point during a pivotal moment of the Reagan presidency (and which some audience members found to be quite timely, what with the current stalemate over a Supreme Court nominee - “the more things change…”).

As indicated, this drama reveals American history through the political peregrinations of one family. It could be retitled Long Decades’ Journey Into Politicking and is sort of later Eugene O’Neill meets Bertolt Brecht (but, alas, without his audacity and verve). Having said this, theatergoers uninterested in elections, primaries, Senate committee hearings and the like are likely to be bored. As its name suggests, Conversations is quite talky and there’s little onstage action, which is confined to scenic designer Jeff Cowie’s expertly executed set of a home where JFK might have sought wisdom during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The clips projected onstage to introduce each era are entirely obvious and predictable.

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(And Now a Word From the “Power of Suggestion” Department: The play’s montages reminded me that in footage of the purported 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan you don’t at any time actually see the president get shot per se. Viewers do see a shooting but, upon careful inspection, not of Reagan himself getting shot, as was extensively reported. If you don’t believe me, watch clips of the event. This does not mean that Reagan was NOT shot, as has always been the official story, but if he was this has not been explicitly depicted in any of the news video I have ever seen. According to the new HBO biopic All the Way, LBJ seized upon JFK’s liquidation to press Congress to pass historic Civil Rights legislation. After the alleged or actual shooting of Reagan - who may have won the presidency in a “landslide” but was actually elected with the votes of only about 25% of eligible voters - Americans expressed sympathy for the supposedly “wounded” actor-in-chief. The reportedly shot 70-year-old trained thespian - who cracked a joke in the operating room about doctors and their party affiliations - may have performed his greatest role in an act that persuaded Americans, swayed by sympathy for a stricken leader, to support his extremely unpopular legislative initiatives, which Congress did after the shooting outside the Washington Hilton Hotel on March 20, 1981. I don’t know if this is the case but I do know that if you watch the video you will NEVER EVER actually see the Gipper get shot. For instance, see: www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVDDdl4MheE. Forget what your ears have been told and watch very closely what your eyes really see.)

Meanwhile, back at the review:

Having indicated that Conversations’ gabby, inside politics sensibility (such as reference to columnist Joseph Alsop) may lull some ticket buyers to the land of Nod, two things redeem this play. The third act, set in 2009, raises an important question: Should people allow politics to divide relatives and friends? Is who somebody backs for office or what bill they support grounds for maintaining cordial, let alone loving, relations with friends and especially blood relatives? Must the familial be political? Or do the bonds of affection, forged by friendship and family, override the proverbial rough and tumble of politics?

For example, Che Guevara, the Left’s knight in shining armor, at some point reportedly chose his friends based mainly on their ideological orientation. I have personally seen with my own eyes friendships destroyed by political disagreements and strains placed on family members because of one’s stance on the issues of the day. But is even the most principled stand worth the heartache of estrangement from loved ones? As Conversations updates its sweep of American political life to tackle same sex marriage and LGBT rights, Giardina asks this pertinent question, as Jason Ritter pulls double duty, also portraying Hesther’s grandson, the adult Ethan. Maybe increasingly polarized Americans across the Left-right divide can agree to disagree and CONVERSE with one another…

The other thing that makes seeing the West Coast premiere of this play that originally opened in 2014 at Lincoln Center is its cast, well-directed by Michael Wilson. It’s a treat to see the lanky, lithe Lahti in person as the imperious Hesther, along with actors such as Steven Culp, who plays her lover, the politician Chandler and - appropriately! - previously depicted Bobby Kennedy in 2000’s Thirteen Days and in the 1996 TV movie Norma Jean & Marilyn, as well as JFK in 2012 in the Perception TV series. So, my fellow aficionados, ask not what the theater can do for you: Ask what you can do for the theater.

The City of Conversations is being presented through June 4 at the Bram Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210. For info: for tickets (310) 746-4000; www.thewallis.org/.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell