New York Theater Review By Michall Jeffers
May 10, 2014
The title city is Washington, D.C., where schmoozing, not action, is often the order of the day. In this case, more specifically, it’s Georgetown, where the Capitol Hill elite chit chat over drinks, and where outsiders aren’t welcome. Hester Ferris (Jan Maxell) has a favorite story, which she’s happy to repeat at the drop of a hat. One evening, she was at an intimate dinner with, among others, Jack Kennedy. He seemed out of sorts, and sought expert advice from another guest on how to deal with the Soviets. And that is how he came to solve the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ah, the good old days.
Into this reverie steps Hester’s son, Colin (Michael Simpson); he’s attended all the right schools, including Sidwell Friends, Harvard, and most recently, the London School of Economics, where he met his pert fiancée, Anna Fitzgerald (Kristen Bush). Anna is from the boonies of Minnesota; she’s a match for Hester, smart, ambitious, and willing to do whatever it takes to climb the Washington ladder. A dinner for George Mallonee (John Aylward), prominent senator from Kentucky, and his wife (Barbara Garrick), provides the perfect opportunity for Anna to express her conservative views, and even though it means crossing her hostess and future mother-in-law, she manages to position herself for a job working in the government. The impeccable Washington doyenne is diminished of her power in her own house.
Jan Maxwell is a revelation, at once caustic, charming, nurturing, and damaging in her cherry red party dress. Author Anthony Giardina has given her some extremely strong dialogue, and Maxwell never misses a beat. We’re fully convinced of her convictions, her dedication to making this a better country; her personal choices are more questionable. She lives with a married senator (Kevin O’Rourke), whom she hopes she’ll help push into becoming President. When given the choice of pursuing her political agenda at the cost of losing someone dear to her, she barely hesitates. A lesser actress wouldn’t have the chops to let us see the many sides of Hester; she loudly proclaims herself a feminist, while turning her sister Jean (Beth Dixon) into her own personal servant.
As her daughter-in-law/adversary, Kristen Bush is electric in a very difficult role. Anna is written as being very close to the villain of the piece. Yet, Bush lets us see the vulnerability behind the brittle shell. When she confesses “I’m not a natural” at motherhood, there’s real pain and regret in the admission. She reminds me very much of Alison Pill, a high compliment.
As always, Doug Hughes directs with precision and vision. The action jumps from the Carter Presidency in 1979, to the Reagan Presidency in 1987, then to 2009, the night of the Obama inauguration. The second act is more talky, and slower than the first, but Hughes knows how to keep the audience interested. Part of his genius is in choosing the right people behind the scenes. The upscale, opulent cream colored set by John Lee Beatty, is pitch perfect; as soon as the curtain opens, we already know so much about the lead characters. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are pleasingly evocative, particularly Anna’s dark “working woman suit,” and Carolyn Mallonee’s ruffled orchid blouse.
There’s a lot of witty dialogue, and some keen observations. When Senator Mallonee proclaims “The great thing about this country- we don’t have to have history if we don’t want it,” is emblematic of those who prefer to forget the freedom America is supposed to offer to all citizens. The play is undoubtedly slanted to favor liberal Democrats, but the conservative Republicans get in their licks, too. Giardina has captured the complicated mother-in-law/daughter-in-law dynamic through political viewpoints.
At the performance I attended, a whisper swept through the audience: Meryl Streep was in the house. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who stole glances of her intently watching the play. I’d bet we were all thinking the same thing; this is going to make one heck of a movie.
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse; 150 West 65th St.; 212-239-6200; lct.org
Through July 6, 2014
*Photos: Stephanie Berger