The Columnist Review: Joe Alsop, Journalism’s Original Dinosaur
He was one of the nation’s most influential newspaper columnists for decades, a cousin of Eleanor Roosevelt, close friends with President Kennedy and even closer with Jackie. But Joseph Alsop is in bed with a young man…in Moscow…in 1954….when we first see him in “The Columnist,” an intelligent and intriguing play by David Auburn. Marking Auburn’s first return to Broadway since his impressive debut with “Proof,” which won both the Pulitzer and the Tony for best play, “The Columnist” is impressive in its own more modest way. Superbly directed by Daniel Sullivan, it features a seven-member dream cast that includes John Lithgow and Boyd Gaines.
Unlike “Proof,” a drama Auburn invented about a mathematical genius struggling with mental illness, “The Columnist” is based on a true story, about a different kind of exceptional and conflicted person. Alsop was as famous in his heyday as he is obscure now, 23 years after his death at the age of 78.
He is not all that has been forgotten. Auburn slyly presents Alsop explaining to the young Russian what a newspaper columnist is, and then, what American newspapers are:
“Every major city has five or six. Morning, afternoon, evening. Even the smallest town has its own weekly. It’s one of our greatest strengths.”
Clearly, “The Columnist” is both a character study of a complex real-life figure , and a low-key, manageable look at a lost era.
In eight scenes that go chronologically from 1954 to 1968, “The Columnist” focuses on Joseph Alsop’s interactions with five central figures in his life:
*With his brother Stewart, played by Gaines, Joe Alsop wrote the widely-syndicated column until Stewart couldn’t stand working with his brother anymore.
*Alsop battles young upstart journalist David Halberstam, played by Stephen Kunken with the right edge of youthful arrogance softened by the character’s inherent integrity. Alsop (it doesn’t seem right to call him Joe) disliked Halberstam, tried to get him fired, because of the younger journalist’s reporting on Vietnam. It is one of the fascinating facts about Alsop that this New Deal liberal became one of the most strident of Vietnam hawks; the person who (according to the play) not only subscribed to the “domino theory” but came up with its name. His views about Vietnam alienated the new generation, and Auburn implies, eventually lead fairly directly to the end of his influence. But, even without Vietnam, his kind of thinking was on its way out, such as the nature of authority. No reader input or focus groups for this journalist: “We tell them what they need to know.”
*Alsop marries Susan (Margaret Colin), the widow of a friend, in a marriage of convenience that lasts 17 years but eventually unravels – thanks not just to Alsop’s homosexuality (which he told her about before proposing) nor just his difficulty with intimacy of any kind but also, Auburn implies, Alsop’s loss of spirit and drive after Kennedy’s assassination.
*Alsop did connect, however, with Susan’s daughter Abigail, his stepdaughter, played by Grace Gummer (who appeared in Arcadia on Broadway and who I still feel required to tell you is Meryl Streep’s daughter, although she is good enough so that soon won’t be necessary.) At least in the retelling in “The Columnist,” Abigail could do no wrong in Alsop’s eyes, even though she is, in theory, everything he detests in the younger generation, including a professional anti-war protester. At one point, Abigal brings home a friend Philip, a hilarious encounter that I won’t give away, only to say that it will make a great anecdote for the actor playing Philip, Marc Bonan, who is making his Broadway debut.
*Finally, there is Alsop’s relationship with that young Russian man (played credibly by Brian J. Smith), which is largely the playwright’s invention in the details, but true to Alsop’s history. According to “Taking on The World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop, Guardians of the American Century,” in 1954 Alsop asked a State Department official in Germany “to help secure for him a ‘warmer’ for the evening” – a young man. In 1957, in a separate incident, secret agents from the KGB caught Alsop in bed with a man in Moscow, and tried to blackmail him. Auburn uses these and other scattered biographical tidbits to imagine a connection that some theatergoers might see as too pat. I suspect Auburn’s elaboration on the Russian character (which includes several surprises that I won’t spoil) is an attempt to spice up, and add more of a narrative arc, to what some might otherwise consider a static portrait of an irksome columnist from long ago.
But even those not enthralled with Joseph Alsop or Auburn’s depiction of him are likely to be won over by the actor playing him. John Lithgow is hardly unknown on Broadway – this is his 22nd role, nearly four decades after his Tony-winning debut in “The Changing Room.” Yet he still manages to surprise. He dons a bow-tie and owl-rimmed glasses, and says supercilious things in an odd affected accent (apparently fairly accurate imitation of Alsop’s voice.) Even his bon-mots are riddled with the archaic and packaged in pomp: “Politics is human intercourse at its most sublimely ridiculous and intensely vital.” Yet for all that, Lithgow somehow still gets us to care about his character.
The experience of “The Columnist” is enhanced by Rocco DiSanti’s gentle projection design, excerpts from Joe Alsop’s writing as if they were being typed in light (it would have been great to be able to read more than a sentence at a time.) That and John Gromada’s unobtrusive and effective music reminded me of the sure, sweet hand in the stagecraft of “The Orphans Home Cycle,” which is for me highest praise.
It may be true as the saying goes, that history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce. But the reverse is true when it comes to Joseph Alsop on Broadway. He was lampooned in a 1970 farce by Art Buchwald entitled “Sheep on the Runway”; his character was renamed Joe Mayflower, at a time when his power was still great, but on the wane. “The Columnist” recalls Joseph Alsop, told with humor as well, but not farce, using his real name this time and hinting at the tragedies in the life of this disconnected man.
At Samuel J. Friedman Theater
Written by David Auburn
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Scenic design by John Lee Beatty, costume design by Jess Goldstein, lighting design by Kenneth Posner, original music and sound design by John Gromada, projection design by Rocco DiSanti
Cast: John Lithgow, Margaret Colin, Boyd Gaines, Stephen Kunken, Marc Bonan, Grace Gummer, Brian J. Smith
Running time: 2 hours and fifteen minutes, including one 15 minute intermission
Buy tickets to The Columnist
The Columnist is scheduled to run until June 24, 2012
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