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NEW YORK – Equipped with arrogance, fearsome intellect, vitriol and the punctilious armor of a man forced to live in denial, John Lithgow fully inhabits influential journalist Joseph Alsop in The Columnist. Director Daniel Sullivan brings his customary clarity and focus to a series of pithy scenes that place Alsop near the center of some important chapters in 20th century American political life. But while this is a potentially fascinating character study with no shortage of meaty material, playwright David Auburn hasn’t managed to shape it into a drama with a discernible through-line.
That’s not to say these eventful two hours are less than absorbing. A Pulitzer and Tony winner for Proof, Auburn is too elegant a writer and too curious about his subject not to keep us interested in such a thorny figure as Alsop.
A Washington powerbroker whose career lasted over four decades, from the early ‘30s through 1974, his nationally syndicated column at its peak appeared in 300 newspapers. Anyone connected with journalism will feel a pang for bygone days early in Auburn’s play when Joe remarks on America’s thousands of newspapers: “Every major city has five or six. Morning, afternoon, evening. Even the smallest town has its own weekly. It’s one of our great strengths.”
If the playwright settles on an underlying theme in this diffuse biodrama, it’s the ethics of journalism during the time when information was primarily delivered to the people via ink, and when its practitioners had the power to exert their influence over policymakers.
The play begins in 1954 with Joe in an afternoon tryst in a Moscow hotel room with a KGB rent-boy (Brian J. Smith), resulting in an unsuccessful attempt by the Soviets to blackmail the secretly gay Alsop.
Jumping ahead to 1961, the action picks up at Joe’s home in Georgetown, D.C., on the night of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. With his younger brother Stewart (Boyd Gaines), Joe toasts the new dawn and the end of Eisenhower’s Washington, which he says, “was like going to bed with a glass of warm milk and a woman in curlers.” What he’s really crowing about is his improved access. Alsop was a furious social strategist, and his dinner parties regularly attracted the city’s political elite. His close friendship with Kennedy is illustrated when the Secret Service drops off the unseen new president for a nightcap after the ball.
While attempting to persuade Stewart to leave the Saturday Evening Post and resume co-writing the column with him, Joe also reveals that night that he is engaged to marry his friend Susan Mary Jay Patten (Margaret Colin), the widow of an American diplomat. Despite being clear from the beginning on the limits of their relationship, her role as more of a social secretary than a wife eventually chafes. Colin’s character is underwritten, but in one of the play’s more poignant scenes she opens up to Joe about how constricting their sexless union has become for her.
Auburn builds the bulk of the action around the Vietnam War, of which Alsop remained a staunch supporter, pushing the agenda of defense secretary Robert McNamara long after the tide of public opinion had turned. That inflexibility hurt his credibility as a journalist, as did his bullying attempts to have reporters who were critical of the war effort fired, notably New York Times correspondent David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken). Stewart’s urging of Joe to modify the aggressive tone of his column falls on deaf ears.
Outfitted by costumer Jess Goldstein in the WASP uniform of bow tie, natty suits and owlish horn-rimmed glasses, with his ever-present cigarette holder trailing a curl of smoke, Lithgow is a magnetic central figure, imbuing the role with rich humor that offsets Joe’s more questionable behavior. Auburn also softens our feelings toward him by exposing the wounds caused by the loss of Stewart, the inevitable distancing of Susan Mary and her idealistic daughter Abigail (Grace Gummer), and perhaps most of all, the assassination of Kennedy, which signposts the beginning of Joe’s decline. Still, as a subject, he stays emotionally at arm’s length.
That may be partly because Auburn doesn’t quite get a grip on Alsop’s seeming contradictions. He was a New Deal liberal and a vehement anti-Communist, though also a vocal critic of McCarthyism. He was a hawk-eyed observer of political and social shifts, and yet refused to read the writing on the wall during the Vietnam protest era. Such an intriguing 20th century transitional figure demands more illuminating context.
Despite this, Lithgow’s performance is smart and compelling, by turns amiable and abrasive, allowing flickering glimpses of the solitude within the man hammering away at his typewriter. Solid support comes from the always sterling Gaines as Joe’s brother and dearest friend, and also from Colin, Kunken, Gummer and Smith. Looking remarkably like her mother, Meryl Streep, at that age, Gummer makes far more of an impression here than in last season’s patchy Arcadia revival.
Sullivan’s Manhattan Theatre Club production is hard to fault, with the action moving at a brisk pace on John Lee Beatty’s handsomely detailed revolving sets, dotted with floating typeface during scene changes. But the play remains episodic, owing whatever flow it has more to the staging than the writing. And while a final scene shows Joe exercising redeeming restraint in a damaging column that will offer him some payback, the resolution lacks impact. Many of the elements are in place for a satisfying drama, but The Columnist doesn’t quite nail it, suggesting that it could use further work.
Venue: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, New York (runs through July 8)
Cast: John Lithgow, Margaret Colin, Boyd Gaines, Stephen Kunken, Marc Bonan, Grace Gummer, Brian J. Smith
Playwright: David Auburn
Director: Daniel Sullivan
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Jess Goldstein
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Music/sound designer: John Gromada
Projection designer: Rocco DiSanti
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club
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