Anthony Giardina’s comedy-drama spans 30 years (1979-2009), principally involving a liberal Washington, D.C., socialite whose son marries an ambitious conservative activist. On the stately townhome set of designers extraordinaire Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay, the opening scene takes place at the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency; the closing sequence is set at the start of Barack Obama’s first term; and, in between, the play’s second segment unfolds in 1987, when Ronald Reagan nominates Robert Bork for the Supreme Court.
Wait for it: When Anna, the daughter-in-law, suddenly realizes that she champions the appointment no more staunchly than Hester, her mother-in-law, opposes it, she proclaims, “We’re not going to lose on this … I mean, a president gets to pick his Supreme Court, doesn’t he?” (If you don’t know who Merrick Garland is, the serendipitous irony will be lost on you, but Horizon’s with-it opening-night audience reacted to the line with the most enthusiastic and spontaneous response in the whole show.)
There’s a decidedly sophisticated spark to the script and its fictional characters — at least as long as they’re talking politics, dropping real names like “Teddy” Kennedy or “Ollie” North and sharing anecdotes about them, or otherwise debating topical current events about racial progress and socioeconomic agendas.
“The City of Conversation” isn’t exactly fair and balanced, though. Both women can be equally headstrong or occasionally strident, but Giardina finally gives Anna a much harder time for her ulterior motives as a wife and mother, while essentially giving Hester a pass for keeping longtime companionship with a married man. Tess Malis Kincaid brings her usual flair to Hester, and co-star Rachel Garner holds her own serviceably as Anna.
Director Anderson casts even the smaller, more thankless supporting parts with qualified (possibly overqualified) heavy-hitters: Chris Kayser as that adulterous lover; Carolyn Cook as Hester’s subservient sister (whose back story is vaguely addressed and then ignored); Allan Edwards and Deborah Bowman as a smarmy Southern senator and his oblivious wife.
Elsewhere, in the meatier roles of Hester’s son, Colin, and later her grown-up grandson, Ethan, Justin Walker underwhelms — twice. So does Joshua D. Mitchell as the latter character’s gay boyfriend. And Vinny Montague as a younger version of the grandson.
Giardina’s comedy is squarely on target in depicting the “charmingly quaint rituals” of bipartisan dinner parties or in questioning the “decline of liberalism” and “legislatively coerced good behavior.” It’s as a drama that the play falters, reduced to a family soap opera that pits Hester against Anna for the love and admiration of Colin, and then for influence and control over Ethan.
Call it an “unwieldy” if hardly “necessary” union, but talk about striking a compromise …
“The City of Conversation”
Through June 26. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 3 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays (no matinee on June 4); 5 p.m. Sundays. $25-$35. Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave. (in Little Five Points), Atlanta. 404-584-7450, www.horizontheatre.com.
Bottom line: More effective as political commentary than as domestic melodrama.Despite all the intelligent, articulate and frequently witty political banter that fuels “The City of Conversation,” the most inspired and keenly observed moment in director Justin Anderson’s Horizon Theatre production owes more to sheer happenstance than deliberate design.