NEW YORK — Nostalgia for an august institution of Georgetown runs rampant in “The City of Conversation,” the splendid new comedy-drama by Anthony Giardina at Lincoln Center Theater. No, not for the institution that gives out all those degrees. It’s to another Georgetown mainstay, the strategic dinner party, that this world-premiere play pays tribute, and to the bygone touch of class that allowed opposing viewpoints to be mixed in civilly with the scotch and sodas.
Shepherded with an appreciation for crisp wit by director Doug Hughes, and performed by a terrific acting cadre led by the irresistible Jan Maxwell, “The City of Conversation” achieves something that eludes many other plays about Washington: a savvy depiction of social skill as political art, in a city that’s defined by political science.
Beyond that, Giardina has composed in his well-made piece a touching story of personal sacrifice, of how even the most genteel of crusaders pays a price for passionate devotion to a cause. In this sense, “The City of Conversation” suggests that Washington was, is and always will be a place where the power to influence events can be as much a destructive force as an invigorating one.
Speaking of the seat of power: that this production — with its marvelous set by John Lee Beatty of a fine old Georgetown home and costumes by Catherine Zuber attentive to the city’s buttoned-down sense of style — should start in New York rather than what is clearly its natural habitat, is a little frustrating. It’s a “Conversation” the theater town on the Potomac should be having, too. In any event, Giardina’s handiwork presents to the world one of the most fair-minded, even compassionate views of the partisan struggles of the city’s political classes you’re likely to encounter these days. (Take that, “House of Cards.”)
The play is divided into three scenes, one set during each of the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, in the living room of Maxwell’s Hester Ferris. In the mold of a Perle Mesta, Pamela Harriman or Sally Quinn, Hester has turned her front parlor into a salon, where the dinner guests are from both sides of the aisle, and the casual chatter over coffee and petit fours might lead, it’s suggested, to a congressional bill or an international treaty.
While Mesta was a socialite and later an ambassador — and the model, by the way, for the 1950 musical “Call Me Madam” — and Quinn is a journalist, Hester is an unreconstructed partisan, a feminist and antiwar liberal. Nevertheless, she views her dinner parties as a vital part of the process: “We’re an arm of the government!” Hester declares. As the play opens, that arm is withering — thanks, she says contemptuously, to the influence of the Carters, and their trumpeting of their status as outsiders. “Say what you want about the Kennedys,” she complains. “They knew how to use us to move a social agenda forward.”
Hester’s own agendas — which include trying to manage the political career of her resistant and ideologically dissenting son Colin (the excellent Michael Simpson) — come into sharper focus as events propel us into the Reagan years and the tumultuous battle over the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. Begged by her son, now a GOP Hill staffer, and his neoconservative wife Anna (a superb Kristen Bush), to consider how her public opposition to Bork will threaten his job, Hester is forced to choose between family and principles. In light of the supercharged divisiveness growing in the city’s political culture, you don’t need two guesses at her decision.
To the credit of Giardina, Hughes and, of course, Maxwell, Hester is conjured in the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater as a woman of intriguing flaws and blind spots. She may be a deft manipulator of her own image, managing to keep out of the newspapers the story of her longtime affair with a Democratic senator (Kevin O’Rourke). But in spite of the unswerving loyalty of her widowed sister Jean (Beth Dixon, in a delightful turn that defines “overshadowed”), Hester is a total failure in the cultivation of the most elemental relationship in her life. It’s a fitting metaphor for the Washington of today that at the dawn of the Obama years, her values remain intact, while the break with her son of divergent opinions is irrevocable.
Maxwell, the life of virtually any theatrical party — even one as mournful and fraught as the one she inhabited in the Kennedy Center’s estimable revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s “Follies” — fulfills that mission here, too, to dazzling effect. So a special toast to an actress giving her mostess to Giardina’s exhilarating evocation of a D.C. hostess.
By Anthony Giardina. Directed by Doug Hughes. Set, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; music and sound, Mark Bennett. With John Aylward, Barbara Garrick, Phillip James Brannon, Luke Niehaus. About two hours 10 minutes. Tickets, $87. Through June 22 at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 65th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.