American politics has become a win-at-any-cost blood sport, with no sense of civility. But in Anthony Giardina's pointed and provocative new drama, The City of Conversation, it's the women who prove the most ruthless in advancing their agendas — and bear the greatest personal costs for their ideological intransigence.
The center of the play, running through June 22 at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, is one of those bygone Washington, D.C., institutions: the Georgetown hostess. Played by Jan Maxwell with cultured confidence, Hester Ferris is a self-made woman who's shed her backwoods Southern accent and uses her townhouse as a salon to advance various progressive causes (and maintain her affair with an uncomfortably married senator). But it's 1979, and the tide is changing for Hester — and for Washington. The disruption arrives in the miniskirted, go-go-booted form of Anna Fitzgerald (Kristen Bush, deliciously brittle), a blonde Reaganite from the Midwest who has snagged the affection of Hester's weak-willed twentysomething son, Colin (Michael Simpson). Colin has grown up hearing Hester's stories of the Alsops and the Kennedys (''Other kids got Pat the Bunny,'' he notes wryly. ''I got selections from de Tocqueville''). But after following a path of least resistance through Harvard and the London School of Economics, he can only manage a half-hearted act of rebellion: to attach himself to a woman who's as steely as his mother but of diametrically opposite ideology.
By the second act, when Hester is chasing Colin and Anna's 6-year-old son around her townhouse circa 1987, the battle lines between the two women are even more sharply drawn. The issue at hand is Robert Bork, and how vocal Hester can and should be in opposing his nomination to the Supreme Court when her son works for Sen. Gordon Humphrey, a New Hampshire Republican and leading Bork backer. As Ethan becomes a literal wedge issue between the two, the fraught family dynamic is exacerbated by Hester's desperate clinging to an antiquated cultural ideal. ''One of the nice things, I always believed, about Georgetown, was the way we all used to lay down our arms at the end of the day and become convivial,'' she tells Anna at one point. ''As if to say, though the battles are very real, we are all finally people, and we have to rest and break bread together in order to get up the next day and do battle again.''
But for a younger generation of true believers such as Anna, conviviality with the opposition smacks of compromise, and of weakness. ''This is a real fight,'' she tells her mother-in-law. ''It's about who gets to shape the future. It matters.'' And because the stakes have changed, breaking bread with those on the other side of the aisle is no longer a virtue. Under Doug Hughes' crisp direction, Maxwell and Bush build up a crackling electric charge in their exchanges — they are well-matched in the sharpness of their tongues and the stubbornness of their convictions. And while some of the plotting in the second act feels a tad gerrymandered for the most extreme effect, The City of Conversation provides a stirring and entertaining reminder that all politics really is local. B+(Tickets: Telecharge.com)