It didn’t used to be like this, believe it or not.
Politics, or whatever it’s called now, this blood sport for spectators. It’s hard to pinpoint why, or how, it happened, but at some point in the last 35 years, our federal politicians decided to trade their boxing gloves for switchblades. Not that it used to be a walk in the park. Not that it was ever a scrimmage. But at least there was dialogue.
Anthony Giardina’s play, “The City of Conversation,” now on stage at the Kavinoky Theatre, offers a before-and-after. It’s as if to say, with regret, sorrow and shame, that the damage has already been done. There are no mulligans on the battlefield.
The play shadowboxes a prominent (and fictional) family at three points in history – in the fall of 1979, the waning days of the Carter administration, when the dueling parties seemingly clocked out at the end of the workday and broke bread, scotch and cigars together in the evening; eight years later, tempers flared over Ronald Reagan’s attempt to nominate Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, a particularly divisive suggestion (and once again, a relevant one); and in 2009, the night Barack Obama was inaugurated.
You can see the wheels in motion from just a cursory glance at these three pivotal moments, but if you look inside the Georgetown household of Hester Ferris, you understand it at a root level. It’s the play’s family drama that really revs your engine.
Hester Ferris is a staunch liberal, a bleeding-heart operative who gets things done. When her son, Colin, a student at the London School of Economics, returns home shaggy-haired and opinionated – and newly Republican – the conversation shifts. Colin’s new girlfriend, the fiercely conservative Anna, is another point of debate. Hester, not one to mince words, also speaks with her eyes – her examining, loud eyes. A mother knows.
There’s a civil war here, a union unraveling out of frustration and discontent, an exhaustion. Politics may split a country in half, but not before it divides households. Cynically, yet poignantly, this play asks which divide is deeper.
But something seems off in this play and its production. Giardina’s characters speak wittily and cleverly, but too often feel like prototypes. The play’s time-traveling may be to blame for that, however important it is to the historical narrative.
It’s hard to feel these seismic shifts when you aren’t on the ground long enough. We don’t need to go through history to know that it happened.
Director Robert Waterhouse has a terrific cast on his hands, but leaves some pacing issues on the stage, particularly in the first act – half-moments of inaction, inefficient blocking, perhaps, that drag the momentum down just a hair. These are hardly monumental concerns, but it registers in the rhythm.
It’s refreshing to see Kristen Tripp Kelley in a role like Hester. I’ve always been curious of Kelley’s bite out of a role that wasn’t of the put-upon-sister variety. This is Kelley at her Meryl Streep best, blazing through the world on her own ticket, validating admiring onlookers, dropping truth bombs in her wake. What a crazy train she always rides, and on which we always want a ticket. She’s probably a bit too young for the role, but she evens it out in the average.
As Anna, Aleks Malejs is a worthy foe for Kelley. She can chew scenery with the best of them, and say a lot when saying nothing. Malejs plays Anna as her own government, her own gender, her own empire, in which she can play – spar, fight, pour scotch – with both men and women, but never lose. Exhausting, but juicy.
Adriano Gatto as Colin, and Debbie Pappas Sham as Hester’s (put-upon) sister Jean, are fantastic as usual. Gatto proves, again, that he can interrogate a scene until it bleeds, and Sham is pure comedic magic, the queen of nuance. David Lundy, Steve Jakiel, Loraine O’Donnell, Aaron Moss and Joel Fesmire (alternating the role of 6-year-old Ethan with Tyler Eisenmann) round out a fine ensemble, each with their moments to shine.
“The City of Conversation”
3 stars (Out of four)
Through March 20 at Kavinoky Theatre at D’Youville College, 320 Porter Ave. Tickets are $42 general, $38 seniors. Visit kavinokytheatre.com.