It’s always good to make an audience think. In The City of Conversation, Colonial Players makes us do just that with a story that is well told, emotional and often laugh-out-loud funny — as well as relevant, with its look at how politics can split families.
Novelist and playwright Anthony Giardina’s script is set in the elegant Georgetown townhouse of Hester Ferris, a left-leaning socialite whose legendary dinner parties are modeled after those of real-life doyenne and former ambassador Perle Mesta. At her soirees, the upper crust from both political stripes discussed, debated and drank with passion but without rancor.
We begin in 1979. Jimmy Carter is in the White House, but Ronald Reagan is rising. Next we come to the fight over Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination, finally to President Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
Making his Colonial Players directing debut, Ruben Vellekoop, keeps the action moving through it all — and through Colonial’s theater in the round.
As Ferris, Kathleen Ruttum anchors the production with authority yet vulnerability. She is a well-regarded woman who can feel her power and effectiveness, and the civility of debate, slipping. The liberal political world that once revolved around her dining room table is falling to neoconservatism. Finally partisanship supersedes civil conversation.
As Ferris’s liberalism was once the sun around which political Washington revolved, Ruttum’s performance is the one around which the others revolve. Politics turns personal when her son Colin (Josh Mooney) introduces a fiancée (Rebecca Gift). The younger woman is ambitious, conservative and not afraid to challenge Hester’s status quo.
Mooney is an excellent comic actor known for his superior performances in musical comedies at Annapolis Summer Garden Theater. It is good to see him acting with more depth. He does so successfully, in two roles. First he is Colin, whose politics aligns more closely with his fiancée’s than his mother’s. (When he said, “The President gets to choose his Supreme Court,” the audience laughed in recognition.) Later he plays Colin’s son Ethan, who returns with his boyfriend to visit his grandmother.
Gift’s Anna, the fiancée, is suitably ambitious and cynical, belittling Hester’s once-lofty position as well as her ideas. Her repartee with Hester takes on the acidity that reflects the changing mores.
A fine supporting cast is led by a droll Karen Kellner as Jean, Hester’s sister, who also runs the house. Paul Banville is Chandler, a liberal senator and Hester’s longtime partner. Jeff Sprague and Carlotta Capuano make the most of a brief appearance as a senator from Kentucky and his wife. David Foster plays Ethan’s friend Donald late in the play, and young Ian Brown nicely plays six-year-old Ethan (a role he splits with Henry MacDonald).
Yes, it’s always good to make the audience think. But not so good to make us guess.
Vellekoop uses empty picture frames to delineate Hester’s home. Nice and effective, until, during their exits throughout the production, the actors each remove a frame and take it offstage. The audience murmurs, wondering — guessing — what it all means and why Hester’s guests are stealing her paintings.
A letter to reviewers — unseen by the audience and not explained in the program — explains something about the frames representing the masks that characters hide behind. The audience didn’t get it. One playgoer who asked an usher got a word with the stage manager. There is no need for this kind of device when a fine cast is telling a good story.
The music, too, was off. Songs from the 1960s and ’70s seem out of place in a show that begins in 1979. If there is some meaning in the lyrics, it does not come across. The choice to interrupt, with an obscene rap song no less, the very tender final moment of the show, is again, questionable.
Less is more. Let the moment speak for itself.
Quibbles aside, The City of Conversation is an enjoyable experience. Funny, emotional and sparked with debate, it received a standing ovation the night I attended.
About two hours with one intermission. Stage manager: Atticus Cooper Boidy. Lighting: Alex Brady. Costumes: Carrie Brady. Set: Mary Butcher.
Thru Jan. 28: FSa 8pm, Su 2pm, plus 8pm Jan. 26, 108 East St., Annapolis; $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.