NEW YORK — Who was Joseph Alsop? This question, this mystery drives "The Columnist," a new drama by David Auburn,Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Proof," about a star journalist who was as clear cut in his political views as he was opaque in his private life.
The play, which opened Wednesday at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway in a production expertly directed by Daniel Sullivan, is more engrossing as creative biography than drama. (Factual events are fictionally processed and supplemented.) But the work is elevated by a commanding performance by John Lithgow as Alsop, the effete Communist-hating syndicated columnist who wrote at a time when newspapermen ruled the world.
Remember those days? Me neither. Yet for a good chunk of the Cold War period Alsop was the consummate Washington insider, a proud member of the Harvard-educated WASP elite and a pundit who wrote as much to influence heads of state as he did to sway public opinion.
Alsop had a secret, however, that made him vulnerable to the many enemies he had formed during his career — he couldn't resist a pretty young man in bed. And during one of his trips to the Soviet Union, he was set up by the KGB, which obtained photographic proof of his proclivities. Never one to back down from a fight, especially one involving the Red Menace, Alsop refused to fall victim to blackmail, but the strain of leading a double life took its toll on him and those in his regal orbit.
The story begins in a hotel room in Moscow in the 1950s. Alsop is savoring a post-coital cigarette as Andrei (Brian J. Smith), a handsome young Russian he has just met in a bar, is getting dressed. The repercussion of this encounter won't be felt for some time, but the audience is made privy to what Alsop, an assiduous custodian of his privilege and power, was careful always to keep under wraps.
The next scene takes place on the night of John F. Kennedy's inauguration, when Alsop's star was never higher. He is at home with his wife, Susan Mary (Margaret Colin), stepdaughter Abigail (Grace Gummer) and brother, Stewart (Boyd Gaines), with whom he used to share a column. Although it's after midnight, he's confident that D.C. power brokers will soon be arriving, and just as everyone but Alsop is ready to throw in the towel, the new president's motorcade pulls up at the door.
As the play systematically points out, however, history, wasn't on Alsop's side. The assassination of JFK, the growing antiwar movement (Alsop was an unwavering supporter of the Vietnam War effort) and the emergence of a new generation of journalists set on challenging the establishment all have a diminishing effect on Alsop's standing.
To David Halberstam (the ever-reliable Stephen Kunken), a rising New York Times reporter, Alsop is just a "preening D.C. socialite with a press pass." Alsop, as Halberstam himself acknowledges, is too fine a writer to be dismissed this way, but even without the threat to his reputation posed by those compromising photos, his brand is becoming quickly outmoded.
Auburn has essentially written a character study that looks at the way Alsop negotiates his two identities — one supremely public, the other discreetly closeted — in the context of the radically changing landscape of 1960s America. The playwright refuses to reduce a complicated life to a few thematic points, but this virtue turns into a salient weakness as the play conspicuously lacks dramatic thrust.
"The Columnist" proceeds almost novelistically, as Auburn tries to do justice to the personal and political dimensions of Alsop's life. The scenes between him and his family members are well observed, but there's not enough time to explore his curious marital arrangement or his domineering manner with his brother, except to note his deepening (and largely self-imposed) isolation.
In tackling more than it can synthesize, the play often seems diffuse. But despite the flaw in its construction — a flaw that is really a conceptual one, stemming from Auburn's somewhat too passive relationship to his material — the work is engaging as cultural history and, to a lesser extent, as a psychological object lesson. As I said to my friend as we left the theater in the midst of a gathering spring storm, "It's not a bad play for a rainy Sunday afternoon."
A good deal of the credit goes to Sullivan's finely acted production, which in addition to Lithgow (ideally cast as the peremptory patrician), features a first-rate ensemble. Gaines, a four-time Tony winner, has a habit of raising the game of his fellow actors — no doubt because he's so mindful of attending to the dignity of his own character, which he does with marvelous subtlety here.
Colin is quietly moving as the neglected wife who has married a man who can love her only as a dinner party hostess and a cover for his homosexuality. Gummer, famous for being the daughter of Meryl Streep but steadily building her own acting resume, brings a spark of youthful vitality to this highly controlled Georgetown household.
The production, as smoothly executed as Sullivan's lauded staging of "Proof," finds the humanity in even the smallest of roles. Of course, it's Alsop who's most in danger of becoming a blustering caricature. But Lithgow serves Auburn well in revealing the secret sorrow of a man — make that a columnist — who lived his life as though he were the one assigned to write his own front page obituary.
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