Review: When Politics Wasn't A Dirty Word

May 25, 2016 | By Bruce R. Feldman

"City of Conversation," The Wallis, Beverly Hills, May 17-June 4, 2016

The relentless, stomach-turning carnival of vitriol, bombast, hypocrisy and name-calling that passes for political dialogue today wasn’t always the norm.

The new play City of Conversation begins in 1979, a time when Democrats and Republicans in Congress treated each other with a modicum of respect and took seriously their duty to work together on the issues dividing the nation.

That is the conceit advanced by Anthony Giardina in his engaging, sobering drama, now at The Wallis Beverly Hills through June 4.

Whether you buy into this notion or even care about the way our legislators did business 35 years ago will depend on your level of cynicism and, perhaps, your political views.

Washington socialite Hester Ferris (Christine Lahti) is preparing to host a dinner for two senators at her Georgetown home. She’s an uncompromising liberal.

Hester considers pushing her political agenda her life’s “work.” It’s a central concept in the play, as it soon becomes clear that her resolve will have personal consequences. We see this when her son Colin (Jason Ritter) shows up unannounced with his ambitious Reaganite fiancée Anna (Georgia King). Hester doesn't approve of the match.

The play is a lamentation for the lost liberalism of the JFK and LBJ eras

Things come to a head between Hester and her son a few years later when she is working steadfastly to derail President Reagan's nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Colin now has a job in Washington; he feels her aggressive efforts will hurt his career.

Should she set aside her deeply held political convictions to keep her family together? Is it even possible for her to do that given her dogged determination? What price is she willing to pay to be true to herself and her deeply held progressive values?

The play spans three eras. It opens in, 1979, it moves to 1987, and ends with a note of hope in 2009 on the eve of Obama’s term.

The acting is solid. Michael Wilson’s production is proficient and professional on every level. It’s highly watchable if not exactly inspired.

Giardina’s writing is what stands out here. Apart from shedding some light on the inner workings of our political process over time, the play also seems to be a lamentation for the lost liberalism of the JFK and LBJ eras.

Regardless of your political beliefs, you will leave the theater shaking your head, wishing for a return to a less partisan era – if that ever really existed – and grateful for Giardina’s focused presentation of issues still pertinent today.

City of Conversation reminds us that reasoned, thoughtful political discourse, whether on the right or left, is what we sorely need right now.

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