By Manning Harris
Horizon Theatre’s current “The City of Conversation,” by Anthony Giardina, directed by Justin Anderson, running through June 26, is a delicious piece of theatre that you must not miss.
It’s set near Washington D.C., Georgetown, where deals are made and fates are sealed at night in the comfortable salons of an elite group of powerful Washington hostesses.
So you thought that important political decisions were made solely in the halls of Congress or the White House? Oh, grow up, as the late Joan Rivers would say.
I remember the late Martha Mitchell’s (wife of Attorney General John Mitchell) face on the cover of Time Magazine; the caption was “The Wives of Washington.” You may be too young to recall the antics of Ms. Mitchell, who became famous for her late night phone calls to political power players or the press, especially during the time of Watergate. But the Georgetown power demimonde, if you will, exists, although Giardina’s play makes it clear that its influence has lessened, especially in this (2016) ferocious political year.
Potomac Fever, the lust and addiction to power that proximity to Washington can engender, is on ample display in “The City of Conversation.”
No one plays the game better than Hester Ferris (Tess Malis Kincaid), whom we first meet in the waning days of the Carter Administration, 1979. At a soirée in her elegant parlor she is helping pave the way for “a little Judiciary Committee thing” by entertaining Republican Senator Mallonee (Allan Edwards) and his wife, Carolyn (Deborah Bowman), both of whom stylishly make the most of their relatively brief time onstage.
Hester’s composure is somewhat challenged by the sudden arrival of her handsome son, Colin (Justin Walker) and his fiancée, Anna (Rachel Garner). Both have just finished their studies at the London School of Economics. Hester is not thrilled by her son’s long hair, nor by Anna’s tall boots; although staunchly Democratic herself, Hester, as stated, is plying the conservative Republican senator. She’s creating an entire milieu for her evening’s agenda, and as someone once said, these things must be done delicately.
Hester and Anna’s instant rapport is roughly that of a cobra and a mongoose. Hester can spot attempted flattery or manipulation a mile away, and Anna’s vaulting ambition is instantly apparent to Hester. She even suggests to Anna that she’s seen that movie, and it’s called “All About Eve.” Yet Anna’s no lightweight; she plays hardball, but then, so does Hester, and with a lot more experience. Both women are out of Colin’s league in intellect and cunning, yet he’s no dunce. He simply lacks their drive and fascination with power. Oh yes, Anna is Republican and has swayed Colin. Hester fumes.
Hester’s mainstay and Rock of Gibraltar is her sister, Jean (Carolyn Cook); her boyfriend is the senator from Virginia, Chandler, played with practiced poise by Chris Kayser.
Pretty soon Anna and Colin have a little boy named Ethan (Vinny Montague, in a feisty performance). Hester adores him, and when she and Anna bring out the big guns for serious battle over possible Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, there is full-out warfare; and Anna is not afraid to use Ethan as a bargaining chip. But she underestimates Hester’s total determination.
Playwright Giardina’s dialogue snaps and crackles, and this A list cast makes the most of it. The show is a feast for those who love fine acting. Carolyn Cook and Chris Kayser show why they are Atlanta acting legends: There’s not a false move or wasted glance or gesture from either of them. Rachel Garner more than rises to the occasion as she goes toe to toe with Ms. Kincaid in heated, tense scenes; it’s a breakthrough performance for Ms. Garner.
I do think that the essence of anger often comes out very quietly; yes, shouting must occur at times, but I think it must be used judiciously. There’s no extra charge to the director or cast for that caveat.
Speaking of Mr. Anderson, his direction is right on the money: the fluid blocking, the insightful handling of scenes, crescendos, and subtle shifts in the momentum and emotional atmosphere. A fine director is supposed to make these things look easy, and he does.
More praise for the actors: Justin Walker’s Colin is quite touching: Colin is a young man who is well-intentioned but all too aware of his limitations, and somehow a subtle undercurrent of sadness emanates from him; very impressive work from Mr. Walker.
It falls to Joshua D. Mitchell to lighten the mood a bit in the play’s final scenes, and he does.
Finally, there is Tess Malis Kincaid. She is flawless: All her formidable gifts—her fierce intelligence, her power, concentration, and subtlety—are on glorious display here. She hasn’t won three Suzi Bass Awards for Best Actress for nothing. Her Hester now ranks in my book with her Barbara in Alliance Theatre’s “August: Osage County,” a towering performance.
Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay have created a beautiful set for what is hands-down the best play on the boards in Atlanta. Don’t miss it.
For tickets and information, visit horizontheatre.com.