Giardina clearly sides with Hester, acknowledging her flaws, but presenting her mission as a noble one. Anna, by contrast, is almost too perfect an enemy, and Hewitt’s performance is so good, her rage so fiery, that it’s impossible to sympathize with her. “I say win, win all the time!” she cries Trumpily in the second act, set during the Reagan presidency, by which point she and Colin are married with a young son. Although Anna is very much entrenched in Washington politics at this point, working for the Justice Department and campaigning for the appointment of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, she still identifies as a “real” American, fighting for the disenfranchised working man. But Hester knows better. “We come here and we are changed by this place,” she tells her. “Face that. Don’t keep thinking that you’re some fresh-faced outsider.”
As the play progresses into its final act, set on the night of President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, Giardina shows how cyclical these fights are—how the impulse to kick out the old guard and revolutionize Congress is realized every four years or so by a loudmouth band of braggards who quickly become absorbed into the system. (It’s hard to hear Hester acidly describe “the overgrown boys from the Reagan freshman class” without thinking about a recent group of younger guns.) Earlier, Hester had tried to explain to Anna that “politics is about tides,” and that the thrill of victory now guarantees defeat in the future. In the old days, she says, understanding that, people would lay down their arms at the end of the day and break bread with each other, smoothing the path for deals in the future. “That would be a lot easier if I didn’t find your side so repulsive,” Anna responds.
What’s extra fascinating about The City of Conversation is that both Hester and Anna are women, channeling their energy into the roles they’re allowed to fill. In 2016, Hester would almost certainly be a Senator herself, marshaling her raw political instincts into legislation first hand (it’s similarly easy, if uncharitable, to imagine Anna as a talking head on cable news). The circumstances of Hester’s era, during which gaining elected office as a woman was almost impossible, undoubtedly pressed her into gaining influence in other ways: Restricted to the domestic sphere, she made her house into a boardroom of sorts. Perhaps one uncredited factor in the decline of Washington society is that so many of its brilliant hostesses have simply found better jobs to occupy their time.
But if it’s hard to explicitly mourn the passing of an era in which so many unelected people held so much undue influence, it’s less difficult to wonder what might happen if our representatives were more frequently compelled to spend leisure time together. The former ABC News anchor Charles Gibson, who blamed the current state of enmity on members of Congress not socializing in a 2011 paper for Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, suggested that Congress might imitate the British Parliament by installing a pub in the U.S. Capitol to “defuse some of the bitterness of the bodies.” Not exactly a vote-winner. But all is not lost. At the opening night for The City of Conversation, as the audience filed out toward their cars, a fleet of black SUVs drove up to pick up attending VIPs. The last bastion of bipartisan engagement, it seems, is theater.