THE COLUMNIST Send This Review to a Friend
John Lithgow is giving a powerful performance in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s presentation of “The Columnist,” David Auburn’s play focusing on the work and life of Joseph Alsop, who was once one of America’s must successful and influential newspaper columnists. He and his brother Stewart were at first a team, and than Joseph carried on the column solo as he continued his contacts among the Washington political elite. Lithgow accomplishes the feat of making his character sympathetic even though, as presented in the play, he could become a nasty person and hard-headed in his support for the Vietnam War that was increasingly recognized as a disaster.
The play, crisply directed by Daniel Sullivan, not only succeeds in providing a complex portrait of the protagonist, but fills us in on a bit of history of the period, which encompasses the Kennedy presidency and events thereafter. What makes the play work as an intelligent and fascinating if not overwhelming theater piece is how it deals with Alsop’s personal life and how his being gay in that era affected him in ways that night not have been the case at a later time when he might not have had to bottle up so much of himself.
The play begins bluntly with Alsop in bed after a night of sex with Andrei, a Russian man well-played, accent intact, by Brian J. Smith. Alsop thinks he has picked up a professional and can’t believe that the Russian is there just because he wanted to be with him. As it turns out later, sex photographs were circulated back home as a result of the tryst, which had been spied upon. Although the columnist takes the stance in the play that he told American officials about the photographs, it is clear that the exposure was deeply hurtful.
Margaret Colin is sympathetically convincing as Susan Mary Alsop, the woman he marries. His being a workaholic oblivious to her needs is part of the problem between them, but how he could assume she would be content, even though he told her about his homosexuality, with a marriage minus sex makes him seem selfish and callous.
Boyd Gaines, excellent as usual, portrays Stewart, who opposes his brother’s rightward drift and whom Joseph resents for not having continued as co-columnist. Grace Gummer is a charmer as Susan Mary Alsop's daughter from a former marriage, and Alsop conveys his fatherly affection for her, but is upset about the extent she allies with the young generation opposing the Vietnam War. Stephen Kunken convincingly plays rival journalist David Halberstam, an opponent of the war that Alsop defends, but, at the behest of Stewart, apparently tries to impede the circulation of the damaging photographs.
The play rests on Lithgow’s ability to convey the various shadings of Alsop’s character, even the downsides, and makes us understand the man without having to like him or his politics. The first act is mostly concerned with setting out the basics, but the second act explodes with the upheavals in Alsop’s life, making the play more dramatic and providing Lithgow the opportunity for some heavy-hitting outbursts. By the time the play has ended, Lithgow has provided a full-blooded portrait of a man all but forgotten today but someone key to the period in which he lived and wrote. At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200.