David Auburn's THE COLUMNIST has received mixed notices from the press. I found it totally absorbing. The play is a portrait of famed columnist Joseph Alsop (1910 - 89). Alsop was a mandarin of the press. From an aristocratic background, he was a strange ideological mix that would be impossible today, a staunch conservative who was friends with and a backer of the Roosevelts and the Kennedys. On John F. Kennedy's inauguration night, the new president chose to come have a celebratory drink at Alsop's house. No print reporter has that kind of power today. It is only held by the likes of right wing buffoon, Rush Limbaugh, though I think powerful Republican tell Limbaugh what to say -- Alsop told presidents what to do. Alsop was an arrogant s.o.b. who loved his power. Unfortunately, after Kennedy's death, he never had the same influence. He was a rabid anti-communist who championed the Vietnam War long after many in the U.S. had turned against it. He had one major Achilles heel -- he was a homosexual in an age when the closet was de rigeur for anyone in the public eye. He also did not understand that some American leaders were capable of using the same smear tactics as the KGB. When the KGB photographs Alsop having sex with a beautiful young man in Moscow, Alsop naively takes the photos to the FBI to stop the KGB from having any power over him. He feels that he is so powerful the government cannot hurt him. Alsop is a kind of monster. Brilliant, powerful, but arrogant and nasty when crossed. When young New York TIMES reporter David Halberstam writes pieces critical of the war, Alsop demands that the TIMES fire him. He marries a charming women so that he will have a hostess for his nightly dinner parties with the rich and powerful, but is cold and tyrannical toward her. He bullies his younger brother Stewart who is also a journalist. The only person he seems to love is his stepdaughter -- he even admires her courage when she becomes one of the peace activists he despises.
Out of this character, Auburn has crafted a well structured, literate, fascinating play. Unlike Amy Herzog (see my review of 4000 MILES) Auburn knows how to craft a scene so it has its own structure and moves the play forward to the next scene. He has given the play a kind of circular structure that is highly effective. The play opens and closes with scenes between Alsop and the young Russian he has sex with in a Moscow hotel room in the 1950s. This structure emphasizes one of Alsop's key themes, the dangers of the closet in the pre-Stonewall era. Act I ends with Kennedy's death, which is also the moment when Alsop's power weakens. He will never again be buddies with a president, certainly not with the insecure Johnson who turns the FBI against Alsop, or with mad Nixon. Alsop doesn't understand the various liberation movements of the sixties, but one is gay liberation that could have changed his life if he weren't so out of touch. Auburn is too good a playwright to hammer home his themes or ideas. He trusts his audience to understand why he is telling this story at this time. Of course, Auburn rearranges history to tell a good story. This is historical fiction, after all. The point is that he has turned this long ilife and career into a highly absorbing drama.
It is a joy to hear such elegant, literate dialogue in the theatre. Audiences are now flocking to Gore Vidal's THE BEST MAN, a dated 1960s play, but one in which the dialogue is a joy to hear. Here, too, there is a love of language. Even the Russian character loves to speak English well.
The production is impeccable and the performances superb. John Lithgow, always one of our best character actors relishes the great part he has been given. Boyd Gaines is touching as the younger brother who isn't strong enough to make Joe see the truth. Brian J. Smith is charming as Andrei, the Russian who is more sincere than Alsop can understand. Another one of Meryl Streep's daughters, Grace Gummer, is charming as Alsop's believed stepdaughter. As always, Daniel Sullivan has given the play the right look, rhythm and sense of ensemble.
THE COLUMNIST was a high point in this orgy of theatergoing.
THE COLUMNIST. Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. May 12, 2012.