It's obvious why playwright David Auburn was so fascinated by the story of journalist Joseph Alsop. Just look at some of the elements: enormous political influence, a key role in the Vietnam War, Soviet blackmail and a secret life.
It is also quite clear why John Lithgow would want to play the role - it offers imperious rants, droll humor, private sobs, regret and lines like this: "Politics is human intercourse at its most sublimely ridiculous and intensely vital."
Auburn and Lithgow have teamed up to offer a revealing if staid look at Alsop, a fixture in Washington's elite circles during the 1950s and 1960s who wrote an influential syndicated newspaper column. In many ways, he was the predecessor of today's personality-driven public commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann.
The portrait that emerges - Manhattan Theatre Club's "The Columnist" opened Thursday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre - should send a chill down the spine of any pundit who begins to think he or she is bigger than the story. Director Daniel Sullivan has tried to make each scene stand on its own, but the result is a play that may be more fun to perform than watch.
Auburn draws a portrait of a self-important WASP in decline, losing his clout and growing increasingly disconnected from reality as he doggedly defends the Vietnam War even as the facts show its horrible costs.
"Yes, you're damn right I 'subscribe' to the domino theory. I named the damned theory," Alsop screams into a phone to a newspaper editor in one scene.
After a fact-finding visit to Saigon, he announces: "I saw the endlessly resourceful military of a great and benevolent power in a twilight struggle for freedom against an inhuman enemy."
But Alsop gets steadily undercut by a new breed of journalist - represented in the play by David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken) - who get their material by knocking on doors and speaking to those on the ground, not being ferried about by the government in heavily orchestrated visits like Alsop.
Lithgow clearly relishes playing the part and emerges as a bow tie-wearing, slightly prissy and officious snob. But tenderness comes out during moments with his daughter, and he bristles with indignation and fear whenever he is questioned or maligned. The rest of the cast have less to do but make their limited roles count.
The play, broken up in a series of chronological imagined scenes, also shows Alsop juggling home life with his stepdaughter (Grace Gummer), wife (Margaret Colin) and brother (Boyd Gaines), with whom he collaborated on a widely admired column from the 1940s to 1958. The action ends in 1968, long before Alsop's death in 1989 at age 78.
Make no mistake. Alsop is not worried about giving his readers entertainment or satisfying their interests. "We tell them what they need to know," he says flatly at one point.
Auburn has teased out a spy thriller as a framing device: The play begins in 1954 in a hotel room in Moscow, where Alsop has bedded a local tourist guide. It's a trap and the KGB now has compromising photos that could destroy the columnist. How he escaped destruction must wait until the final scene.
In the meantime, we see Alsop fighting with other journalists, wining and dining the influential, mourning the death of his hero John F. Kennedy ("I feel like my life has been broken in half") and trying, as a closeted homosexual, to keep his wife happy. His brother, the more populist-minded Stewart, is largely dominated by the older Joe in the play, even though Stewart meets with critics of his brother and pleads for them to help cover up the scandal.
"I wish I had your certainty," Stewart tells his brother in one scene.
John Lee Beatty's sets switch Lazy Susan-style from upper-crust interiors with wood-paneled bookcases and elegant sofas, to park benches, and even a minimalist Saigon bar. His best set is toward the end at a cemetery that features a stone wall lit beautifully by Kenneth Posner.
"The Columnist" joins two other plays this season to tackle journalists, "The Wood" about tabloid columnist Mike McAlary and "CQ/CX" about the Jayson Blair scandal at The New York Times. The new musical "Newsies" even celebrates turn-of-the-century newspaper sellers. Who says interest in journalism is in decline?
“The Columnist” seemed to have everything going for it. The writer, star, director and design team are all proven talents.
But you can’t make a fire with wet matches and David Auburn’s new work turns out to be a disappointingly soggy drama.
In a mix of fact and fiction, it recalls the life and times of Joseph Alsop (played by John Lithgow), a syndicated political newspaperman. His influential career spanned the 1930s through the 1970s before his death in 1989.
He had the ear of presidents, including good chum John F. Kennedy, and was buddies with much of D.C.’s power elite.
Alsop was also a closeted homosexual. He was described as “eccentric” in one bio and a “walking American version of a British fop” in another.
You get the picture.
But in the Manhattan Theatre Club presentation Alsop’s fabled tics and traits are mostly avoided. Too bad. The notion of the man’s public and private disconnect would have packed more punch.
Precisely what made conservative and controversial Alsop so mighty fails to come into sharp focus. Snippets of his column that are projected don’t lend a clue.
What emerges is a series of light pencil sketches tracking Alsop and intimates from Cold War to Kennedy assassination to Vietnam War, which he stoked.
The story’s stiffness is all the more surprising since Auburn’s 2000 play “Proof” made math formulas exciting.
Daniel Sullivan directed that earlier work and this one, and lightning doesn’t strike twice.
As usual, Lithgow commands on stage and makes the most of the material. His portrait of Alsop is a man who’s aloof and loudly states his mind — a lot like the columnist J.J. Hunsecker he played in the musical, “Sweet Smell of Success.”
Seasoned pros and emerging actors form the ensemble, including Margaret Colin as Alsop’s wife, who marries him knowing he’s gay and eventually tires of being a beard. Grace Gummer is her teenaged daughter (renamed in the play for some reason) whom he tutors and unsuccessfully tries to shape in his mold.
Boyd Gaines is his brother Stewart, confidant and writing partner. Stephen Kunken is real-life journo David Halberstam. Brian J. Smith works a Russian accent as a Soviet hooker, whose encounters with Alsop bookend the play.
“The Columnist” captures an era before political bloggers and pundits were on every TV channel, a time when few voices rang loudly. The play strives to depict the power of words, but, ironically, lands with little force.
Few people today remember journalist Joseph Alsop, but once upon a time he was a big deal.
Or so everybody in “The Columnist,” a new Broadway show about him, repeats over and over. That “everybody” includes the man himself, as he wasn’t shy about tooting his own horn.
So we’re told that Alsop (John Lithgow, at his most satin-robe-wearing refined) was syndicated in dozens and dozens of newspapers. That this well-heeled elitist was an influential liberal hawk and a McCarthy-hating anti-communist. That JFK dropped by his house the night of his inauguration.
In Washington, “everyone knows me, everyone fears me,” Alsop gloats, “so if you’re with me, you are guaranteed a good table at restaurants.”
As a subject, this has great potential, intermingling politics and journalism, with the Cold War as background. But David Auburn’s play — his first since the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning “Proof” — is as pulse-quickening as a wire dispatch about gardening controversies.
The problem is that Alsop doesn’t change much over the course of the play, and despite massaging some facts, Auburn doesn’t find any dramatic traction. Instead, he parcels out exposition through conversations — most of them between Alsop and his brother and ex-collaborator, Stewart (Boyd Gaines, impeccable as usual) — that never reach a full boil.
The one thing the playwright seems most interested in is Alsop’s homosexuality, which here becomes the key to his life — this Citizen Kane’s Rosebud.
The very first scene shows us Alsop in a hotel room with a handsome Soviet, Andrei (Brian J. Smith), during a visit to Moscow. That’s risky business in the mid-’50s, and indeed Andrei turns out to be a KGB plant.
Alsop gets out of that jam, but the encounter looms over the entire show, which takes us to 1968. It’s on our minds as we watch Alsop interact with his wife, Susan Mary (Margaret Colin), and the made-up character of stepdaughter Abigail (Grace Gummer).
It even impacts Alsop’s relationship with the New York Times’ David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken), one of the younger journalists who returned Alsop’s contempt in full.
Directed by Daniel Sullivan (“Proof,” “Good People”), the production is as good as can be. It has the kind of well-appointed polish we expect from Manhattan Theatre Club fare, with some visual grace notes — the projections of letters floating off Alsop’s columns are especially beautiful.
Lithgow has the chewiest role, but he gets top support. Colin is lovely showing the loneliness of a gay man’s wife, and Kunken’s Halberstam perfectly projects a know-it-all self-righteousness.
In the end, “The Columnist” is not much more than a lot of blah, blah. Or, since Alsop used a typewriter, clickety-clack.
Nudity has been so commonplace for so long on Broadway that it is now shocking when it shocks you. So give credit to the creators of “The Columnist,” David Auburn’s scrupulously assembled historical drama, for delivering a truly troubling glimpse of exposed flesh in the play’s opening minutes, a glimpse — it turns out — that is anything but gratuitous.
The flesh is John Lithgow’s, and let me hasten to add that a) Mr. Lithgow has been naked onstage before; b) his flesh in and of itself is not scary; and c) only his upper torso is on full view. But Mr. Lithgow is portraying Joseph Alsop, the powerful political writer of the mid-20th century, and a man you don’t think of as even having a skin, except possibly in tweed or gray flannel.
There’s a disconnect in what we see between the face — a bespectacled, patrician mask whose default expression is a sneer — and the body, which seems as soft and unprotected as a shucked crab. I found myself thinking of the director John Huston’s description of Edward G. Robinson in a bathtub in the film “Key Largo,” looking like “a crustacean without a shell.”
Hold that image of the naked Mr. Lithgow in your mind during the rest of “The Columnist,” which opened on Wednesday night at the Friedman Theater, because it has a revelatory immediacy in a play that is otherwise more informative than illuminating. What we have witnessed in that early scene is, according to Mr. Auburn’s script, Alsop’s moment of greatest vulnerability in his long, prolific and combative years in punditry.
The year is 1954. The scene is a Moscow hotel room. And we infer that Alsop has just finished having sex with a handsome Russian youth (Brian J. Smith) and, what’s more, has much enjoyed it. He is warmer and more open here than we will ever see him again. And, oh, sorry, Joe. But you’ve just been punked by the K.G.B.
That incident — in which photographs of Alsop in flagrante delicto were taken for purposes of blackmail — casts a shadow of varying hues over the rest of “The Columnist,” which is set in the 1960s and is mostly inspired by real events. Mr. Auburn’s re-creation of that afternoon in Moscow efficiently sets up the tent poles for the political and personal themes that canopy this play.
Through his conversation with Andrei, the young hustler, we learn of Joe’s childlike enthusiasm for the world of Washington politics. (“Politics is human intercourse at its most sublimely ridiculous and intensely vital.”) Of his overweening professional self-esteem (“Everyone knows me”) and feelings of unattractiveness. (“Are you saying you came here because you wanted to?”) We are introduced to his contempt for all things Soviet and his unfortunate tendency to treat people as less than human.
In other words what “The Columnist” will be about has been laid out as conscientiously as it might be in the opening paragraph of a solid-A term paper. And in his first full-length play since the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Proof” (2000), Mr. Auburn carefully follows through and expands on every element in that early scene. As an old-fashioned architect, he can’t be faulted here. But he doesn’t furnish his rooms so that they feel genuinely lived in.
The masterly director Daniel Sullivan (who also staged “Proof”) and a very good cast that also includes Margaret Colin and Boyd Gaines do their best to bring flesh to what remains essentially an annotated outline. Sometimes they succeed. But you always hear the dry rustle of reference materials in the background — of time lines, headlines and lists of famous names to be included.
Many of those names are formidable. As a widely syndicated columnist, Alsop (1910-1989) spoke to power and even whispered in its ear. The play’s second full scene takes place on the night of President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and ends with the imminent arrival of Kennedy at Joe’s Georgetown residence. “Jack will make the country exciting again,” Joe says, contentedly adding shortly after, “And he owes us.”
The people on hand to share in the celebration are Stewart Alsop (Mr. Gaines), Joe’s brother, with whom he shared a byline for many years; Susan Mary (Ms. Colin), his fiancée and already a celebrated political hostess; and Abigail (Grace Gummer), Susan Mary’s teenage daughter.
The contentious, incomplete relationships he will have with each of these characters are established here. And nothing that happens after in these relationships is terribly surprising. Ms. Colin and Mr. Gaines, both excellent in limited roles, are asked to portray their characters reaching out to Joe again and again, only to be rejected. And the play might as well end with Joe singing, à la Anthony Newley, “What kind of fool am I, who never fell in love?”
That’s the personal part of the equation. The political part presents Joe as a fearsome dinosaur, a fierce advocate of the war in Vietnam whose power begins its inexorable decline with the assassination of Kennedy. On hand to represent youth banging at the door is Stephen Kunken, doing brash and young as a brash and young reporter for The New York Times named David Halberstam. The play ends with the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, with Joe recoiling from the light like a vampire at sunrise.
A Manhattan Theater Club production, “The Columnist” has been designed with taste and elegance by John Lee Beatty (sets), Jess Goldstein (costumes) and Kenneth Posner (lighting). And the acting is about as good as it could be. A two-time Tony winner, Mr. Lithgow has played arrogant power-wielding newspaper columnists at least twice before (in “Sweet Smell of Success” and “Mr. and Mrs. Fitch”), and he could do Joseph Alsop with his eyes closed.
That he remains wide awake and engaged — punctuating his performance with delicious moues of self-satisfaction that summon the charm wielded by some supreme egotists — is the reason you won’t go to sleep either. Yet the only time I felt the conflicted empathy for Joe that I assume Mr. Auburn wants us to feel was in that prefatory scene in Moscow, where Alsop was literally laid bare. Sometimes flesh speaks louder than words.
There was a time, not so long ago, when reporters pounded on Underwood typewriters, when major cities had five or six dailies and powerful newspaper columnists shaped political policy without screaming on talk radio or cable TV.
But "The Columnist," David Auburn's compelling new drama starring a magnificent John Lithgow, is not being romantic about that heyday of print journalism. Nor is the playwright, who won the 2001 Pulitzer for "Proof," too obviously taking sides about the impact of Joseph Alsop, the mega-powerful syndicated columnist who died in 1989, at 78, and is pretty much forgotten outside the bubble of Washington journalism junkies.
Unlike "Proof," which basically used higher mathematics as a background for a conventional family drama, "The Columnist" marinates in rich and real ramifications of the Cold War, JFK and Vietnam to create a fascinating study of a man and an era.
It is up to the experts to debate the facts about this complicated fellow, a New Deal liberal, a WASP Republican, McCarthy foe, war hawk and closeted gay whose fortunes soured along with Southeast Asia. As theater, however, director Daniel Sullivan's beautifully acted production -- with its seemingly effortless turntable set with the hallucinatory flying typewriter letters by John Lee Beatty -- digs swiftly and stylishly into the intersections of the personal and the political.
We begin with a scene that, content aside, shows Alsop at his most emotionally open, naked in a Moscow hotel room with a young man (Brian J. Smith). Before realizing the KGB entrapped him, Alsop unself-consciously exposes both the ego and the insecurities that drive his downfall.
Margaret Colin has a nobody's-fool graciousness as his late-life wife who, at first, thrives in the swirling power-center of their Georgetown home. Grace Gummer matures delicately through the tumultuous years as his adored stepdaughter. Boyd Gaines is exquisitely conflicted as his brother and former writing partner, while Stephen Kunken balances contempt and compassion as David Halberstam, Alsop's adversary on Vietnam.
Most of all, there is Lithgow, who creates a fully formed man beyond the owl glasses, the high-tone accent and the three-piece suits -- which get subtly rumpled as Alsop's equilibrium teeters on his world view. "You cannot imagine how this city was in the '30s," he tries to tell his daughter. We can't know how it was in the '60s, either, but we can imagine better now.
John Lithgow is a chameleon who can play anything from a TV serial killer ("Dexter") to a charming con in a Broadway musical ("Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"). In "The Columnist," the new bio-drama by David Auburn ("Proof"), he does a brilliant job with Joseph Alsop, the Washington political pundit who wielded immense power through his syndicated newspaper column. Supported by a solid cast, Lithgow finds the humanity in this irascible, obsessive and quite unlikable demigod. But neither he nor helmer Daniel Sullivan can do the impossible: manufacture a play out of the scattered events of Auburn's well-articulated but loosely structured scenes.
A well-born WASP with top-drawer social connections (to the Roosevelts, no less) and a cultivated taste for fine art, Alsop cut a far more impressive figure than the braying media asses who currently dominate the political scene. But between his fanatical enthusiasm for the Vietnam War and his rabid attacks on his political "enemies," he was no less dangerous.
A dapper dresser, Alsop maintained his air of superiority by adopting an exquisite if eccentric sense of style. Costumer Jess Goldstein has supplied the elegant suits, silk bow ties, cigarette holder and owlish eyeglasses. Lithgow wears this sartorial splendor as the emotional straitjacket it is, an insight he conveys with his ramrod-stiff posture and the tight little purse he makes of his mouth.
As a closeted homosexual hiding behind a friendly marriage of convenience to a kind woman (played with sensitivity by Margaret Colin), Alsop was indeed repressed. And as much as the play can be said to have a dramatic crisis, it's the situation he gets into on a trip to Moscow, when the KGB sets him up with an attractive young man (a scene played with a measure of grace by Lithgow and Brian J. Smith) and secretly photographs the encounter.
Instead of using this crisis as his dramatic engine, Auburn lets it hover over the play, never quite integrated into other events. Lacking a clear plot focus, the play thus remains a series of episodic scenes, all efficiently staged on John Lee Beatty's extremely well-dressed set interiors. Some of them are quite gripping -- but still feel random.
The scenes that Lithgow plays with Boyd Gaines, as Alsop's brother and onetime writing partner, Stewart, have heart. Unlike Alsop, Stewart never became consumed by his political passions, and his concern for his progressively fanatical brother is quite moving.
As the play goes on, with Alsop increasingly eaten alive by his obsessions, he perversely becomes more intractable in his political beliefs about the righteousness of the war in Vietnam and the dangers of communism. At this point, Lithgow is playing him like the fabled lion with a thorn in his paw. Unable to make peace with changing political realities and unwilling to accept the new standards of journalism -- represented by young turks like David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken) -- he can only roar in frustration and make life miserable for his wife, his brother and the stepdaughter (played with girlish spirit by Grace Gummer) he adores.
After becoming irrelevant, Alsop did not go gentle into that good night. But Lithgow makes sure that this wounded beast goes out with a bit of dignity.