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The City Of Conversation (Wallis Theatre)

The Bram Goldsmith Theatre, at the Wallis, is a beautiful space, with superb acoustics and sightlines. In their expanded new season, the producers at The Wallis have promised more theatre in both the Goldsmith and smaller Loveless theatres, with longer runs than they have been able to provide, so the presentation of Anthony Giardina’s 2010 political drama, The City of Conversation, harkens back to a time when Washington, D.C. was not only the capitol of the United States, but on many other levels was an intellectual capital of social politics.

No more. But in Giardina’s 2½–hour-long play, set in 1979, 1986, and 2009, in a fabulous house in the historic Georgetown section of the District of Columbia, we meet a doyenne of political dinner parties, Hester (Christine Lahti), mid-50s perhaps, whose political heyday was a decade before, when politics and social mobility met up over lively dinners, so civilization could continue after hours.

But that time is rapidly coming to an end, as Hester’s grown son, Colin (Jason Ritter), just out of the London School of Economics, brings home a fiancé, Anna (Georgia King), a driven, manipulative and groomed-for-success political animal. Hester’s sister, Jean (Deborah Offner), and Hester’s significant-other, Chandler (Steven Culp), who will be in Congress, all share a belief that politics is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

These characters, augmented with a Kentucky senator, (David Selby) and his gracious wife (Michael Learned), do make for a splendid array of characters with which to spend an evening. Conniving, always manipulating the moment, sending forth gobs of educated and thoughtful words, the dividing lines between liberal and conservative are so seldom well-displayed.

Which begs a question:  can the political and the personal be explored fully in only one evening of theatre? No, probably not; this story deserves to be a mini-series. Maybe in, say, ten hours we could successfully explore all the ideas and personal idiosyncrasies of this doomed family, rent asunder by the extremes of power-seeking and parental failure. When Colin and Anna come out as Reagan admirers, upending Hester and Jean’s political liberalism, the six-year-old son of the couple, Ethan (Nicholas Oteri), whom we later meet as a grownup man (Ritter again), who’s main squeeze is a black sociologist, Donald (Johnny Ramey), and who is sensibly not in politics.  But Hester must now have to deal with a grown Ethan who is scarred by the bitter fight between his parents and his estranged grandmother.

It’s a remarkable story, sensibly managed by director Michael Wilson, on this grand living- and dining-room of an old-money house (gorgeously designed by Jeff Cowie), with high ceilings, large library, a painting of Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s 1851 Washington Crossing the Delaware  in the background. The splendid costuming of David C. Woolard complements everyone, although overheard were several women’s intermission comments that Lahti, altogether sexy in blood-red, was entirely too thin (no comment from this end). Ritter and King made a terrific Lord and Lady Macbeth, and Selby and Learned a gracious, if diminishing, kind of political character. Offner, Culp, Ramey and young Oteri, were on-the-button with their performances.

For all its short-comings (not enough time to do justice to Giardina’s exploration of the dying artform of political socialization, now dead as a dodo bird), his dialogue, and the actors’ abilities to made these folk come alive as people and not just as symbols, all made for fascinating theatre.

This short run is, apparently, the end of this production, although one wouldn’t be surprised to see it expanded into a film or television mini-series (please!). And for those of us who desperately miss the intelligence of “The West Wing,” that would be welcomed, indeed.

“The City of Conversation” runs through June 4th at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills 90210. Tickets:  310.746.4000 or at