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May 23, 2012

"The Columnist" Is All Tell, Too Little Show

Maybe we should blame Joseph Alsop.  When the KGB tried to blackmail the powerful Washington columnist with a threat to reveal his homosexuality, Alsop marched straight to the U.S. embassy and confessed that the Russians had photos of him having sex with a man in a Moscow hotel room. If Alsop hadn’t done that, then The Columnist, David Auburn’s new play, might have had a plot.

The compromising incident gets The Columnist off to a great start but most of the play, which is now running at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through July 1, is simply a series of This-Is-Your-Life-style vignettes from the rest of Alsop’s life: the night of JFK’s inauguration, the afternoon of JFK’s assassination, Alsop’s years-long fealty to his hawkish views on the Vietnam War.

All that might be fine for a PBS documentary but theater requires more, well, drama. Alsop, who died in 1989, is nowhere near as well-known as he once was and so theategoers need to be wooed into caring about him or what happened to him. Even the grey-heads that make up so much of Manhattan Theatre Club’s subscription audience, and who might be assumed to have remembered Alsop in his heyday, seemed subdued the night my husband K and I saw the show.

Auburn, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Proof, has said that he wrote this play to explore the subject of power and how someone who had as much of it as Alsop once did could be so little known now (click here to read that interview).  He’s certainly written lots of lines in which characters talk about how powerful Alsop is but the problem is that The Columnist is all tell and too little show. The play might have worked better if Auburn had focused more on the personal than the political.

There’s plenty of back story that could have provided drama, including Alsop’s marriage of convenience to his wife Susan Mary and rivalries with his younger brother Stewart and the then-up-and-coming journalist David Halberstam, who opposed the war.  Auburn’s script touches on each of these relationships but centering the play around any one of them might have made for a far more compelling evening.

Director Daniel Sullivan tries to make the best of what he’s been given with a cinematic approach that includes John Lee Beatty’s terrifically fluid set whose transformations include the Moscow hotel room, a Georgetown drawing room and a Foggy Bottom park. There are also stylish video projections by Rocco Disanti in which typewritten words from Alsop's columns flit across a scrim. And it’s all smartly lit by Kenneth Posner.

Sullivan has also assembled a powerhouse cast, who singly and certainly together, know how to command an audience’s attention. It’s lead by John Lithgow, who captures the smug intellect and WASPy swagger that made Alsop such a dominant figure in mid-century America and then Lithgow laces his portrayal with just the right suggestions of the vulnerability that Alsop clearly worked so hard to mask (click here to read an essay the actor wrote about Alsop).

Lithgow is matched toe-to-toe by Boyd Gaines as Stewart and Margaret Colin as Susan Mary, both of whom love Joe intensely but are deeply frustrated by him. And there is equally nice work by Stephen Kunken as Halberstam, Grace Gummer as Alsop’s adored stepdaughter and Brian J. Smith as the duplicitous Russian lover.

They keep the show from being a dull night in the theater but not even the combined force of their considerable talent can make it anywhere near as powerful as was the man whose life The Columnist attempts to portray.

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