David Auburn is a good writer. He’s smart, interesting and provocative. Unfortunately for his current offering, The Columnist, these qualities seem buried in a surfeit of exposition. Dramatizing political intellectuals as they actually were, risks subjecting an audience to so many lengthy, pompous, information-crammed speeches, we’re fading before the end of act one. Editing to the point would’ve aided momentum and perhaps kept us more interested in the personal story running parallel to its historical context.
Joseph Alsop was born into a socially and politically prominent family with ties to the Roosevelts. By the time he entered the Navy in 1941, he had a syndicated column and a bestselling book. After the war, Joseph and his brother Stewart joined to write a weekly piece called “Matter of Fact,” based on reporting rather than opinions. When his brother moved on to other work and other points of view, however, opinions grew like weeds in Joseph’s column. “I don’t give a shit what they want, we tell them what they need,” he says in the play. Alsop exerted substantial influence behind the scenes for some years. A strong Kennedy supporter, he was in favor of America’s involvement in Vietnam distancing him from the next administration.
Alsop’s personal life, which is more theatrically successful, included a marriage of convenience, a threat of sexual blackmail that almost derailed him, and the death of his foil, his brother. Auburn over utilizes his protagonist’s stepdaughter, trotting her out for a scene whenever he wants to show his hero’s more vulnerable side, and underutilizes an inexplicably long suffering wife. An issue of sexuality bookends the play so neatly, we wonder where it’s been all the years between.
Director Daniel Sullivan, whom I otherwise admire, seems to have gotten enmeshed in the material. His Joseph Alsop does a lot of one-note yelling and a lot of one-note explaining. Brother Stewart, on the other hand, is beautifully realized whenever on stage as is wife Susan in a single illuminating scene. The complete miscasting of poor, able, Grace Gummer as a pouting child does both her and the play a great disservice.
John Lithgow (Joseph Alsop) appears to be on a pendulum swing. Portrayal seems dull when he’s not exploding. No warmth at all is shown with wife or lover and little inferred towards a brother with whom he was evidently close. There is next to no nuance or thought observed behind the eyes.
Margaret Colin (Susan Mary Alsop) appears unfocused, diminishing her credibility. Only when Susan and her husband tell each other the truth does the actress muster her skills and become wholly effective.
Boyd Gaines (Stewart Alsop) is the revelation here. Usually dependable, he delivers a low key performance filled with emotional presence. No speech arrives without consideration, no movement without impetus. Gaines creates a real and sympathetic character every moment he’s in sight.
The Columnist by David Auburn
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Manhattan Theater Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theater
261 West 47th Street