When it comes to understanding the decline of American political discourse, it can be hard to choose just one reason. Although fake news, corporate lobbying, Russian interference, and a certain person’s Twitter habit have all contributed, The City of Conversation, which opens Saturday, February 10, at the New Vic, pins responsibility for extreme partisanship and perennial gridlock on something less obvious but potentially more instructive: the demise of the intimate Georgetown dinner party.
A certain kind of private supper that once ruled the social lives of the federal government’s most powerful figures is now virtually extinct. Hosted by commanding women who understood the art of seating plans to the highest degree, these legendary affairs typically took place in their well-appointed dining rooms. The guest lists routinely crossed party lines, and the atmosphere encouraged candor by demanding that guests lay down their ideological armor and put aside their legislative agendas upon entry. When things went well, this alternate setting opened paths to imaginative collaboration in governance and inspired the sort of intelligent, thoughtful process that led Henry James to dub social Washington not “the swamp” but “the city of conversation.”
Sharon Lawrence stars as Hester Ferris, an amalgamation of Katherine Graham, Sally Quinn, Susan Mary Alsop, and all the other great figures who crafted this tradition of aspirational hospitality. Meredith Baxter plays Jean, Hester’s older sister and right hand. Beginning in the 1970s, during the Carter administration, the play moves through four decades, including the Reagan administration, and ends on the night of Barack Obama’s first inauguration. Hester’s nemesis is her daughter-in-law Anna, an ambitious young Republican who has recruited Hester’s son to her rising brand of ruthless political fundamentalism. Anna takes advantage of the dinner-party system to its fullest extent and then sees to its eventual destruction.
For Baxter and Lawrence, both great stars whose work has primarily been in television (Family Ties and NYPD Blue, respectively, but also many more series and films), the show offers an opportunity to express their powerful yearning for more intelligent and humane leadership in Washington and elsewhere. Speaking with them last week, I was struck by how passionately they are responding to the material, which clearly strikes a nerve in this Trump-dominated, post-#MeToo moment. Speaking of Jean, Baxter said that there’s more to this apparently retiring character than first meets the eye. “It took rereading the script for me to see the humor of the role,” she told me, adding that “Jean has a sharp little tongue.” She praised director Cameron Watson, saying that “the discovery has been great” in what she identified as her “favorite part of any play” — the rehearsal process.
What Jean sees Hester go through mirrors a generational sense of disillusionment. When Anna chooses to cut off the conversation that Hester cares about most, she challenges the values that have animated her mother-in-law’s entire adult life. For Lawrence, this intergenerational conflict matters deeply, as it’s a learning opportunity for the cast. “We are not just all of us remembering these events,” she said, referring to such historical contexts as the Robert Bork Supreme Court nomination hearings. “For the younger members of the cast, who weren’t alive when these things were happening, it’s a revelation and an education” to see that the roots of our current ideological divide run so far back and extend so deep. What both these actors communicated to me, and what the play promises to express, is a longing to engage again in humane and civilized discussion with our leaders — something that would seem impossible in a system that’s increasingly driven by outbursts of 140 characters.
The City of Conversation previews Thursday-Friday, February 8-9; opens Saturday, February 10; and runs through February 25 at Ensemble Theatre Company’s New Vic (33 W. Victoria St.). For tickets and information, call (805) 965-5400 or visit etcsb.org.