The City of Conversation spans thirty years, which is about how long its playwright, Anthony "Tony" Giardina, and its director, Doug Hughes, have been acquainted. "We met in the early '80s," Hughes told me the other day in the Mitzi E. Newhouse, as tech rehearsals were getting underway. "I was an associate artistic director of Manhattan Theatre Club. I was running a series of new plays. One afternoon, I read one by Tony called The Child. I called him up. The play was already spoken for, but we went on from there." Their collaboration includes Scenes from La Vie de Boheme, at MTC, and two plays at Seattle Rep, when Hughes was associate artistic director there.
"We've stayed in constant touch over the years," Hughes said. During that period, Giardina published several well-received novels. Hughes believes the playwright's fiction-writing serves him well in Conversation. "Tony has the novelist's panoramic grasp of how people develop over the years. He understands what time does to us."
In Conversation, which takes place in a Georgetown townhouse, time is eroding the Democratic party and the way in which its leading lights developed social policy around the dinner table. "There was a kind of glamour to the decline of liberalism," said Hughes, who grew up in New York and went to Harvard. "Hester knows that those glory days are waning, but she doesn't know what to put in their place. Family infighting becomes the new sport."
In the first scene of the first act, which takes place in 1979, Hester is appalled by the drift to the right embodied by her son, Colin, and Anna Fitzgerald, his girlfriend. "The children are in the vanguard of the conservative revolution about to be brought in by Reagan," Hughes said. "They can be seen as a kind of Republican Bill and Hillary."
I asked Hughes whether the kind of crackling political drama represented byCity of Conversation hasn't become as rare as the Georgetown dinner parties presided over by Hester and her senator friends. The director replied: "It's true that, with the exception of Tony Kushner, American playwrights don't tend to deal very much with political subject matter." Hughes added: "That territory got ceded to television, with the rise of cable news and the advent of the 24-hour-a-day pundits." And Hughes agreed when I mentioned that, more recently, the entertainment aspect of politics - and The City of Conversation is certainly entertaining - has been covered by such Internet-driven TV shows as "Scandal" and "House of Cards."
But Hughes, whose parents were the actors Barnard Hughes and Helen Stenborg, thinks there remains a place not only for politics in plays but for theatre in the culture. "We've worried for so long about theater becoming obsolescent, and about how digital technologies have supplanted live performance. But we keep being reminded that there is something primal about people sitting together as a group. We also keep being reminded that the theater is one of the few places in contemporary society where people are likely to hear a bit of truth." He continued: "There's something about the experience that is fundamentally different from watching a story unfold on a screen at home, as you do three or four other things at the same time."
All the same, Hughes said that plays like The City of Conversation and programs like "House of Cards" all tap into our desire to know about what goes on in the private lives of public figures. "I think Montaigne had it right. He said that he would much rather know what was said in private on the eve of battle than what went on during the battle itself."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com