by Linda Lombardi, Artistic Associate and Literary Manager
In The City of Conversation, Anthony Giardina shows what happens to one family when politics becomes personal. When her son returns to D.C. with a fiancée and surprisingly conservative beliefs, longtime liberal doyenne, Hester Ferris, must choose between her family and her life’s work. Watch as power and allegiances shift from the end of Carter’s presidency, through the Regan administration and the contentious Bork Supreme Court battle, and into the promise and hope of Obama’s first inauguration. After a successful run at Lincoln Center last year, we’re thrilled to have this “juicy, funny and terrific new play” (The New York Times) right where it belongs — Washington, D.C. I had the pleasure of interviewing Tony at the beginning of rehearsals. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
What was your inspiration for writing the play?
My inspiration for writing the play came from an essay by Sidney Blumenthal that appeared in The New Yorker in 1997. It was called “The Ruins of Georgetown,” and it was about Joseph Alsop and his world. It affected me the way reading anything about worlds ghostly and lost always does — in this case, it was the old social world of Georgetown, the intimacy that existed between kings and kingmakers, dinner parties in which actual deal-making was done. Though the piece was about Alsop, it was so much about his wife, Susan Mary, that I remember thinking: “Someone should write a play about these women, these hostesses.” It barely occurred to me that that playwright might be me. But it started something — a long process of reading, exploring, thinking. Finally it occurred to me that if no one else was going to do it, I would.
You've worked with Doug Hughes for a long time. How would you describe your collaborative relationship?
Doug and I first met in 1981, and worked on a play that turned out to be a huge disaster in New York. At that point you decide you never want to see each other again, or you bond for life. In our case, happily, it was the latter. Now when we work together, we have a frame of reference — at this point, encompassing six productions and workshops over the course of 35 years — that allows us a beautiful shorthand in the rehearsal hall. I know, and deeply appreciate, how he guides actors and shapes performances, so it’s a pleasure to just sit back and observe that. That level of trust is so rare that I have to remind myself not to take it for granted — to respect someone as much as I respect him, and for the two of us to take our (I hope) mutual respect into a public arena is what makes the process so valuable for me. It’s not that we don’t have disagreements — we do — but like any good couple, we’ve learned how to resolve them amicably.
The Bork nomination was possibly the first political battle I really remember. It was certainly the first one that, as a woman, affected me as much as it did. Why choose that moment to focus on?
Again, the word is far-reaching. Had Bork ascended to the Supreme Court, his would have been the vote that would likely have doomed gay marriage. (Of course he died in 2012, so this is highly speculative — Obama might have had a chance to replace him, so we’d presumably have a more liberal Supreme Court than the one now ruling.) Still, there’s no telling what effect Bork would have had had it been him, and not Anthony Kennedy, filling that particular seat. The point is that the Left feared him, and a coalition that had been deeply discouraged during the Reagan years saw a chance to fight what Colin calls “the old man’s legacy.” Because of the significance of that fight, I thought it made a lot of sense to focus on it, and on Hester’s part in it. Just as Hester’s Democratic party in 1979 saw Teddy Kennedy as its last best chance to prevail, the Republicans saw Bork as a way of continuing the Reagan legacy, and I like the way the play twins those two moments where each of the two parties is fighting very hard to keep its best hopes from expiring.
Hester isn’t modeled after anyone in particular. In researching the play, I read autobiographies and biographies of people like Katherine Graham and Pamela Harriman. And I read about Susan Mary Alsop and Sally Quinn. But there is no one model. If anything, she’s inspired as much by the hostess Gene Tierney played in the movie Advise and Consent as by any actual figure. I think the word “conglomeration” might be appropriate here.
In City, the character of Anna talks about a people who want to reclaim their country, who are unhappy with the direction things are going. Which is a sentiment we’ve heard often in recent presidential races. Did Reagan do for conservatives what Obama did for liberals?
I think there’s an important difference. Obama gave liberals what turned out to be a short moment in the sun. I believe his presidency will one day be seen to be more important and successful than it’s now given credit for being, but he hardly seems to have ushered in a new liberal ascendancy. Reagan’s presidency changed the country in ways we’re still feeling. It was transformative in a larger and more enduring sense than Obama’s will, I suspect, turn out to be. The presidency to compare Reagan’s to is Roosevelt’s, I think. They were the two 20th century presidencies that had what could be called long-ranging effects. The debates we’re having now rise from the twin poles of their administrations.
What do you think about today's level of political discourse — from news coverage to debates to everyday dealings?
I have nothing new to add about the state of today’s political discourse. That said, I follow the political dialogue — such as it is — with the rabidity of a football fan. And it’s the madness of it as much as anything that I enjoy. I’m convinced that within it an actual dialogue is in fact going on, but parsing it is like trying to parse the actual marital dialogue going on within a blowout fight. We’re fighting about stuff we care passionately about, but we seem not to know how to do it without screaming. Still, I wonder sometimes whether the world I’m referencing in The City of Conversation — that postwar world of remembered civility — wasn’t in fact a hiatus in our long rancorous history of conducting our politics as a form of contact sport.
If you could have dinner with any political figure, alive or dead, who would it be, and why?
It’s going to sound bizarre, but I think I might choose Richard Nixon. I’d just like to observe him. He’s the political figure who never gets boring, the one we’ll never quite figure out. And think of the questions I could ask him! I’m waiting for Spielberg to make a movie of his life, with Daniel Day-Lewis playing Nixon.
The play spans the presidencies from Carter through Obama. Who’s your favorite president, and why?
I’m thinking more and more highly of LBJ, but isn’t everyone? Also, Eisenhower becomes more interesting, even more weirdly admirable, as time goes by. Maybe my new affection or interest in Eisenhower stems from my affection for all things 1950’s, but I’ve been thinking more and more about his valedictory speech warning us all about the military industrial complex. I hold out hope that Obama will deliver a speech toward the end of his presidency offering us some deep insight into what he’s perceived after eight years in office. But will that happen, or will we have to wait for the memoir?
Which current issue do you think is most likely to be debated at family dinners 30 years from now?
What a good question. In 30 years it will be 2045. 30 years ago, in 1985, the issues we were debating at our dinner tables were, well, what, exactly? Abortion? The Sandanistas? (I know, they’re not an issue.) Iran-Contra was still a couple of years away. I think a lot of us just felt deeply discouraged, so we talked about Back to the Future, the big movie of that year. I couldn’t possibly predict 2045, since we could very possibly be having our dinner table conversations in three feet of water, as the ice caps melt. It would be glib of me to say I’m kind of glad I won’t be around, since I have a two year old granddaughter to worry about. But I’m guessing our unwillingness to confront climate change in a substantive enough way is going to haunt us, and 2045 might not be such a fun year.
(Photos: Margaret Colin as Hester Ferris in The City of Conversation. Photo by Tony Powell.)