Politics, Potions, and People to Forget

Lincoln Center Theater

Kristen Bush, Michael Simpson, and Jan Maxwell in Anthony Giardina’s “The City of Conversation.” | STEPHANIE BERGER

BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | The backstage power politics of Washington under a string of presidential administrations is the context for “The City of Conversation,” Anthony Giardina’s well-crafted and completely engrossing new play now at Lincoln Center.

Ostensibly the story of one Hester Ferris and her stormy relationships and subtle machinations, it is also a tale of family and of ideals and their related costs. Power is the focal point —its expression, its use, and the risks and consequences it entails.

When Hester’s adult son Colin arrives home from London, he brings his fiancée Anna along. Colin and Anna, archetypal new conservatives ushered in with President Ronald Reagan, stand in stark contrast to Hester’s more liberal posture. Anna, especially, is power-hungry and impatient with Hester’s more delicate manipulations. Their interaction is commentary on the way our politics have changed over the past three decades.

A brilliant play, a bit of compelling college humor, and a wasted evening

The play’s crisis arrives when Hester is working against Ronald Reagan’s ultimately failed nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, an appointment that Colin and Anna’s political fortunes are tied to. With Anna and Colin advancing under the Washington’s new Republican regime, Hester assumes daily charge of her grandson Ethan, but as the family’s generational conflict grows, Anna makes the boy a pawn — and it is Hester who loses. Here, Giardina deftly shows how politics shifted from its traditional focus on people and relationships to a game in which winning is all.

This is a fascinating, multi-layered play that manages to blend the classic “All About Eve” with the Netflix Kevin Spacey hit “House of Cards.” Giardina’s instinctively liberal bent is never in doubt, but to his credit he sets up a good fight. Like Shaw, he isn’t afraid to give validity to opposing viewpoints. All of which makes the play so much richer.

Director Doug Hughes once again demonstrates his unique skill in drawing complex, human, and believable performances out of all of his characters. Michael Simpson as Colin and as the adult Ethan gives wonderfully centered performances in two distinct roles. Anna’s role as written comes close to being a literary device (a la Shaw), but Kristen Bush finds the details that make her believable. Beth Dixon as Hester’s sister and lifelong assistant is superb — just the kind of placating personality who often stands beside powerful people.

But it is Jan Maxwell who elevates this play to must-see status. Playing Hester at three ages — at the peak of her power and charisma, slightly chastened but still fighting while she tends to her family, and as the older fighter who has stayed true to herself — she imbues each phase with heart and passion. Every moment is exquisitely realized, and we see in Hester the passage of time and the payments it exacts — providing additional insights that make this play so exciting and profound.

One of the rotating casts of “Drunk Shakespeare” running at Quinn’s Bar on West 44th Street. | JENNY ANDERSON

One of the rotating casts of “Drunk Shakespeare” running at Quinn’s Bar on West 44th Street. | JENNY ANDERSON

“Drunk Shakespeare” is sophomoric, silly, and utterly irresistible. Performed by a rotating series of actors on the second floor of Quinn’s Bar on West 44th Street, it is based on the conceit of a “drinking club with a Shakespeare problem.” Amidst the silliness and literary creativity, the troupe performs a much truncated and alcoholically lubricated “Macbeth.” Of course, there are time-outs for drinking games and random improvisations, such as requiring that whenever Ross appears, he do so in the guise of a Disney animal. And many real shots are imbibed by at least one member of the company, chosen for the night to be inspired by that indomitable muse John Barleycorn.

As with any undertaking of this nature, the combination of intelligence and silliness is what makes this work and, remarkably, the Scottish Play stands up pretty well to the pummeling it takes over approximately 90 minutes of revelry — with the cast even managing moments of inspired acting. It takes a special kind of talent to pull that off, and director David Hudson and his company deliver an unabashedly good time.

Samuel D. Hunter’s new play “The Few” is the most frustrating kind of playwriting. Hunter thinks that by withholding information he can create tension and curiosity, but given the slim plot — a guy leaves his girl; she moves on; he comes back; trouble ensues — the piece really only exists as a character study. Unfortunately, the characters are not very interesting.

After the guy, Bryan, leaves, his girl, QZ, transforms their faux-poetic newspaper targeting truckers into something that actually pays. She hires an abused gay relative, Matthew, who idolizes Bryan and believes he was a literary genius, a kind of Kerouac for truckers. Sadly, Bryan is just a feckless dolt. QZ spouts conventional, injured-yet-stoic woman nonsense, and Matthew serves as little more than a dramatic device to set up conflict.

Considering the quality, human insights, and impact of Hunter’s other plays — “A Bright New Boise” and “The Whale” — this is a real disappointment. The play receives little help from Davis McCallum’s direction, which is ponderous, with the actors, particularly Michael Laurence as Bryan, displaying self-indulgence to the point of tooth-grinding tedium. There is, after all, a difference between naturalism and rigor mortis, but in some of Bryan’s excruciatingly long pauses, it’s hard to tell the difference.

Tasha Lawrence as QZ gives a generic performance in a generic role, but the most unfortunate performance is Gideon Glick’s as Matthew, who has been directed to pander to some idea of a bullied gay teen apparently suffering from PTSD. The performance lacks specificity, rendering it both unbelievable and offensive. When all the play’s secrets are finally revealed, they hardly seem worth waiting for.

THE CITY OF CONVERSATION | Lincoln Center Newhouse Theater | 150 W. 65th St. | Through Jul. 6 | Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $77-$87; | telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | 2 hrs., 15 min., with intermission

DRUNK SHAKESPEARE | Quinn’s Bar | 356 W. 44th St., second fl. | Through Jun. 14 | Mon., Wed., Sat. at 8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 10 p.m. | $29 | drunkshakespeare.com or 765-537-8650 | 90 min., no intermission

THE FEW | Rattlestick Playwrights Theater | 224 Waverly Pl. | Through Jun. 21 | Sun.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 3 p.m. | $10-$55; | ovationtix.com or 866-811-4111 | 90 min., no intermission