The City of Conversation, the new drama by Anthony Giardina, begins in the fall of 1979, in Washington, D.C., but the story's events are colored by an earlier era. "While writing the play," said the author, "I was also thinking about the preceding years of the postwar period." Giardina and I were sitting outside LCT's large rehearsal hall, around a small metal table, while our thoughts coalesced around more elegant, larger, wooden tables: the kind favored for the dinner parties thrown in the 1960s and 1970s by characters like Hester Ferris, whose home is the setting for the play.
Giardina says his inspiration for the story, which revolves around the liberal Hester, and her conservative son Colin and his Reaganite wife, Anna, came after reading a piece written by Sidney Blumenthal which was published in The New Yorker in October, 1996. "It was called 'The Ruins of Georgetown,' and described the way in which ideas about government policy took shape at evenings in that part of Washington, before beginning a decline with Vietnam." He added: "The high point of that period was the early '60s, with JFK. But this Cold War consensus among many Democrats and Republicans didn't end with his assassination. There was the hope that there would be a restoration of sorts with Bobby Kennedy. When he was killed the hopes moved on to Teddy. My play begins at the end of the Carter era, when Teddy is finally preparing to run for President."
I mention to Giardina the irony of the Georgetown era interpreted as the height of "the WASP Ascendancy," given that this apogee was the administration of an Irish-Catholic from Boston. Giardina, who grew up in an Irish-and-Italian Catholic neighborhood outside Boston, and attended Fordham, a Jesuit school in the Bronx, replied: "What bound these Georgetown people was not just a cultural or religious background but a set of shared ideas." He went on: "They had been through World War II together, and agreed about the threat of Communism, though McCarthy was anathema to most of them."
The danger in dramatizing political ideas is that a play can feel like a C-SPAN debate rather than a human story. Giardina acknowledged the challenge, explaining: "It's important that the political battles in the story take place over personal issues - a mother competing with her prospective daughter-in-law over a son, a grandmother competing for the affection of a grandchild."
Giardina's work as a novelist over the past 15 years has given him a deep feeling for such family dynamics during the postwar era: his fiction Recent History (Random House, 2001), White Guys (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), and Norumbega Park (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) have all taken place at least partly in the 1960s and 1970s. "A major theme in my work is the way in which masculinity has evolved over the past 50 years," Giardina said. "The theme is still there, but this is a play where the focus is really on women."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com