Just when it seems that theater has run out of new ideas with the season's end, here is "The City of Conversation," Anthony Giardina's historical play-of-ideas so old they feel new and important again.
It is 1979, then 1987, finally 2009 in a tastefully ostentatious Georgetown home, where politicians and intellectuals once gathered for exclusive dinner parties and powerful men made connections and compromises that changed the country.
When we first meet Hester Ferris, glamorous liberal hostess of such parties, she is lamenting the decline of the ritual dinners that offered, as she puts it, "chatter and culture and nuance." As the world shifts through the Carter administration, then to Reagan, then finally to Obama's first inauguration, Hester's function -- not to mention her family -- dwindles into unrecognizable political realities.
Giardina's drama is lively and engrossing, though the shattering of Hester's relationship with her son's family feels thin and a bit trumped up. But director Doug Hughes' production and cast are first rate. The invaluable Jan Maxwell is a swirl of imperiousness, warmth and progressive fury as Hester, with Kevin O'Rourke as her live-in senator, Beth Dixon as her equally passionate but less flashy sister and Michael Simpson as her adored grown son, who returns from college with a neocon fiancee (Kristen Bush).
Where "All the Way," starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ, shows us '60s lawmaking within the bubble of the White House and Congress, "City of Conversation" goes into one of history's equally significant sociopolitical bubbles. How good to be reminded of a time when today's struggles over gay rights, racism and abortion were shaped by a more personal, intimate kind of backroom politics.
WHAT "The City of Conversation"
WHERE Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center Theater
INFO $77-$87; 212-239-6200, lct.org
BOTTOM LINE Engrossing history of backroom politics in glamorous Georgetown