“The Realistic Joneses” and “The City of Conversation” – New Plays on Broadway

I saw two new plays over the past week: “The Realistic Joneses” by Will Eno at the Lyceum Theatre, and “The City of Conversation” by Anthony Giardina at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. I was drawn to the first by the cast — I was eager to see Michael C. Hall and Marisa Tomei — and to the second by the subject matter — the famed female political hostesses of Washington D.C. in the “old days”. While I thought Hall and Tomei were terrific, I didn’t care much for the play they were in. I did care, very much, for The City of Conversations, which I found both entertaining and emotionally strong.

“The Realistic Joneses” has a cast of four. The other two are Toni Collette and Tracy Letts. The plot involves two married couples, portrayed by Collette and Letts (couple No. 1) and Tomei and Hall (couple No. 2). Couple No. 2 has just moved into the neighborhood, “a smallish town not far from some mountains,” and have wandered over to get acquainted with their neighbors. Letts is hostile and taciturn, Collette more welcoming. Over the course of the 100 minute intermission-less play, it develops that both Letts and Hall are suffering from some kind of terminal illness and freaking out about it, each in their different way. The wives are more sane, but wrapped up in coping with their husbands’ psychological problems. I found it intermittently interesting, but at the end I thought “so what was that all about?” and “why should we be interested.” Definitely not high on my list of shows I’ve seen this year.

On the other hand, The City of Conservation seemed very consequential, perhaps because I’ve always been a political junky and the script is strewn with political references. The excellent Jan Maxwell plays Hester Ferris, a notable widowed Washington hostess whose dinner parties play a role in the country’s government, as she brings together people that need to achieve particular results in the private setting of her dining room. She is a firm liberal, as is her widowed sister, Jean Swift (played by Beth Dixon), who she orders around and who seems to gladly take up the burden of doing Hester’s bidding. Their son, Colin (played by Michael Simpson), shows up “a day early” having returned from college overseas at the London School of Economics, with his girlfriend, Anna Fitzgerald (played by Kristen Bush) in tow. It develops over the course of the first scene, set in Hester’s Georgetown living room in September 1979, that Colin and Anna are ardent conservative supports of Gov. Ronald Reagan, soon to contest the presidency with Jimmy Carter. Fireworks develop, and Hester and Anna really don’t get along. They showed up a day early because Colin knew his mother was having a dinner party for a southern senator (a Democrat but no liberal, played by John Aylward) whose vote is needed for some purpose. Hester’s boyfriend is another Senator (played by Kevin O’Rourke) who has enlisted her in his scheme to provide a setting for them to work out some kind of deal, and the arrival of Colin and Anna complicates matters — and things develop from there. The second scene, after a brief intermission, is set in October 1987, during the Reagan presidency, and the final scene in January 2009, as Barack Obama is about to be inaugurated. Actor Michael Simpson shows up again, now playing the son of Colin and Anna, with his — wait for this — African-American boyfriend (played by Phillip James Brannon) in tow…. Anyway, I thought it was terrific. The only remaining cast members to mention — and this gives something away — are Barbara Garrick, who plays the southern senator’s wife, and Luke Niehaus, who plays Colin and Anna’s 6-year-old son for whom Hester is baby-sitting in the second scene. Everybody in the cast is superb, the entire thing is directed with sparkle by Doug Huges, and the set by John Lee Beatty creates a 1970s Georgetown living room to what appears to be perfection. This one is a must-see.

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