by MICHAEL VAN DUZER
Early evening sunlight beats down with surprising strength as I pull into a parking space at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. May days are definitely lengthening. But I’m not in Beverly Hills to enjoy an al fresco meal. I am here to sit in on a tech rehearsal for The City of Conversation.
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Anthony Giardina’s The City of Conversation charts a great political and cultural shift through the lens of a highly-politicized family. Hester Ferris (Christine Lahti) is a Georgetown doyenne who hosts salons where — in the more civilized 1970s — political deals were brokered over cigars and choice liquor after dinner. Proud of her liberal values, she is unprepared for her son, Colin (Jason Ritter), to return from London with a fiancée who is not only an obvious rival, but a staunch conservative.
Beginning in the waning days of the Carter administration and spanning 30 years and six presidencies, the conversation and confrontations in Hester’s Georgetown home mirror the increasing polarization of the political scene.
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Walking into the comfortable 500-seat Bram Goldsmith Theater, I am greeted by the sight of Jeff Cowie’s set depicting Hester’s well-appointed living room. The room is currently populated by an eclectic assortment of workers simultaneously setting props, checking sound and light levels, and walking the set.
The cast is still on their dinner break, but the tech crew is taking advantage of the actors’ absence to prepare the upcoming scene.
I am introduced to the show’s Production Stage Manager (PSM), Robert Bennett. He informs me that the earlier rehearsal for the opening scene of the play went so smoothly that they were able to run it, in full, a second time. A genuine rarity during a first tech rehearsal.
We are interrupted by a shout from the stage. It is Lighting Designer Lap Chi Chu, who has noticed that one of the lighting instruments focused on the downstage right area has dropped and is illuminating the first row of the audience. An assistant is quick to scramble up and adjust the light to Chu’s specifications.
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Chu’s problem with the wayward instrument is easily solved. But not all of the challenges he’s faced in getting to this point have been as simple. To an untrained eye, lighting a realistic set like the one in this production might seem elementary, but an artist sees and carefully weighs all the possibilities.
“Finding the most interesting and expressive lighting to reveal the emotional context of the play, but still make sense in that realistic set is the challenge,” Chu explains. “And how does that light infiltrate the realistic set and remain true to its architectural layout? I am looking to answer these questions constantly working on a realistic set.”
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Director Michael Wilson shares a production table with his assistant, Jonathan K. Musser, a few rows back from the stage in the center of the house. Similar production tables are set up for each department: Stage Management, Lighting, Sets, Sound & Projections, and Costumes, as well as one for the theatre’s Production Manager.
These tables provide intriguing clues to the personalities involved. Personal tchotchkes vie with work-related items for supremacy. A stuffed bear in a Red Sox hoodie, a well-thumbed script, a collection of empty coffee containers.
Actors are beginning to drift onto the stage, having eaten and changed into their costumes.
Michael Learned, who plays Carolyn Mallonee — a no-nonsense Southern senator’s wife — floats onto the stage in an evening gown carrying her shoes. The dual roles of Hester’s son and grandson are played by Jason Ritter, who appears sporting a shoulder-length wig for 1979.
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Ritter was born after 1979, so he felt obligated to research the era’s political background. (Though he’s quick to point out that the strong emotional arc of the play will appeal to younger audiences who don’t need to know all the references.) He’s also keenly aware that the play has gained an added resonance in today’s political climate.
“When I first read it, it felt so timely and relevant that I thought it must have just been written,” Ritter says. “I was really moved by the play. It speaks to so many things that I am personally passionate about, especially concerning people’s political stances and the way they intersect with our interpersonal connections.”
Naturally the blare of the presidential discourse made its way into the rehearsal hall — particularly as the play’s dialog often mirrors the outside debates. As Ritter explains, “I think the play inspires conversation, which is why I love it so much. We had people of all different political colors working on this production, so it was nice to have a safe space to have civil discussions, without devolving into the kind of vitriol we see everywhere online.”
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Now that the actors are assembled, Director Michael Wilson leaves his tech discussions and bounds onto the stage to check in with them. Wilson is warm and energetic with a bounce in his step and genuine concern for the entire team. This evening he sports a puckish, Smurf-blue stocking cap.
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Wilson, who directed the Trip to Bountiful revival which played the Ahmanson, is most comfortable working with a familiar design and tech team. As Scenic Designer and long-time collaborator, Jeff Cowie, says, “Success in any collaborative endeavor depends on trust with one’s fellow workers as well as a willingness to accept notes/opinions with humor and seriousness. We were lucky on this show to have so many long-time designer friends together, as well as two new friends—there’s a shorthand among us, both serious and hilarious.”
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Wilson does a final check with everyone and asks Bennett to call Places. The lights fade to black, and a Frank Sinatra song blends with the sounds of laughter and pouring champagne. Bennett calls a halt and the lights return to the final cue for the end of the first scene. Apparently, it’s too dark for the actors to navigate the way to their places.
The Assistant Stage Manager (ASM) and a Production Assistant (PA) appear and query the actors about where they need glow tape in order to guide them. The two go quickly to work and, after a final check, disappear backstage. Once again, on Bennett’s cue, the lights fade — Frank sings and the bubbly flows. The lights come up and, magically, the three performers who begin the scene are in their places. The first problem of the evening is efficiently solved.
The actors continue performing the scene, oblivious to the fact that they no longer have the undivided attention of their audience. While the backstage crew is on headsets, the designers are not, and the house is abuzz with concentrated conferences as they view their work critically and consider tweaks. Wilson and Bennett are, of course, more focused on the overall picture, but even Wilson quietly dictates his notes to his assistant.
A few minutes further into the scene, Wilson calls a halt. He’s decided that he’d like the pocket doors leading to the dining room, where the other cast members await their entrance, left a little ajar. This means that the crew responsible for setting the stage need to note the amount of space Wilson wants between the doors. It also means that the dining room will have to be lit.
As these changes are worked out, Wilson hops onto the stage, anxious to take advantage of the pause to give notes to the actors. David Selby, playing Senator Mallonee, and Steven Culp as Senator Chandler Harris have some staging questions, now that they’re in the space, and Wilson quickly clarifies their blocking.
And that’s how the evening progresses — carefully and methodically. Perfecting every detail…
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Tech is the crucial time when all the production elements come together — when dreams and preparation finally become theatrical reality. As Chu puts it, “I need to react to the piece as if I am seeing it for the first time… not be too attached to all the work that has preceded, and make the necessary adaptations.”
But Chu’s pithiest and, arguably, most insightful thought on tech is basically the theatrical equivalent of the Boy Scouts’ motto. “Understand that nothing ever goes as planned, and to be ready to deal with that.”
The artists creating the West Coast premiere of The City of Conversation are all ready for the challenge.
NOW PLAYING: THE CITY OF CONVERSATION at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, through June 4.
Savvy Hester Ferris is the doyenne of Georgetown dinner parties whose influence in liberal politics is legendary. But when her son suddenly turns up with a Reaganite girlfriend and a shocking new conservative world view, Hester must choose between preserving her family and defending her cause.