Monday, September 26, 2016

Northlight's 'City of Conversation' Speaks To Just How Divisive Politics Can Be -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The City of Conversation
a recent play by Anthony Giardina
directed by Marti Lyons
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru October 23

Let's say you're a longtime Democrat, who is not only supporting Hillary Clinton but heavily involved in fieldwork and fundraising.

Your grown son, however, doesn't just intend to vote for Donald Trump, he actually works for his campaign in a rather high-level capacity.

Though obviously a bone of contention, this has not yet ruined your relationship.

But what if you, fully convinced that a Trump presidency would be hugely detrimental for the country and world, had the means to virtually ensure a Clinton victory.

Though there would be nothing illegal about your actions, as a fairly direct consequence your son would lose his job and--especially if your role was revealed--his reputation, standing and career.

And you would essentially lose your son. Plus the privilege of seeing your grandchildren.

This isn't specifically the setup of Anthony Giardina's The City of Conversation, which was written and staged off-Broadway in 2014, before Donald Trump was a presidential candidate, but a dilemma somewhat akin forms the centerpiece of the play, now getting its Chicagoland premiere at Skokie's Northlight Theatre.

I doubt I was the only one watching who  made the mental leap to battle lines being drawn between relatives and friends on opposite sides of the political spectrum, particularly amid this highly-charged and especially polarized election campaign.

Heck, barely a day goes by when I don't see friends being fairly nasty to each other on Facebook for beliefs and positions espoused.

So whatever else I might say about The City of Conversation--which I enjoyed quite a bit but wouldn't call phenomenal--the crux of its most riveting moments are clearly quite resonant.

Which I don't think is coincidental, even if Giardina concocted it pre-Trump, as the scenarios onstage unfold across three presidential administrations: Carter, Reagan and Obama.

Lia Mortensen, excellent in Writers Theatre's Company where she delivered a terrific "Ladies Who Lunch," ostensibly plays one here in Hester Ferris, a left-leaning Washington, DC socialite virtually married to a Democratic Senator, if only he wasn't otherwise married.

As the 3-part (but 2-act) drama begins, Hester is preparing to host a dinner at her Georgetown home largely to enable her pal, Sen. Chandler Harris (Tim Decker), to cajole another senator, George Mallonee (Tim Monsion) into voting to demand federal judge nominees disavow membership in segregated country clubs.

The specifics of the political gamesmanship confused me a bit, but Giardina here mainly seems to be illustrating how politics were once much more genteel (at least outwardly), with rivals often finding common ground over cocktails and conversation in swanky parlors off the National Mall.

This was abetted by strong writing throughout, but I found The City of Conversation spoke much more powerfully when it intertwined family dynamics with politics.

Though entailing less overt dramatic tension than other relationships depicted, I found Hester's interactions with her older, politically like-minded but much considerably less suave sister Jean (Natalie West) rather notable.

But the show is mainly driven by Hester's interplay with son Colin (Greg Matthew Anderson), who still within the first scene arrives home from his studies at the London School of Economics with a striking classmate, Anna (Mattie Hawkinson), whom his mom is seemingly not only meeting but hearing about for the first time, even though she has become his fiancé.

Anna is ambitious--I appreciated Giardina's reference to All About Eve--and even more to Hester's chagrin, Republican (or at least a budding Reaganite).

Especially given the imagined scenario I outlined at top, I don't think it behooves me to reveal any more of the specifics that unfold, only to share that Colin & Anna--now with a son of their own named Ethan (Tyler Kaplan)--become even more adversarial with Hester in the play's Reagan-era part, with repercussions that continue into the Obama years.

Throughout the play, I felt that I was watching a quality, substantive work--as I almost always do at Northlight--with strong performances throughout and nice set design by Tom Burch, all under the direction of Marti Lyons.

And that I continue to think about it a few days later also bespeaks the merits of The City of Conversation, even if it only occasionally seemed to amplify itself into a show truly worth shouting about.

But when it comes to politics, perhaps getting away from too much in your face(book) rancor is a good thing.

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