The clickety-clack of a typewriter, journalist Joe Alsop’s weapon of choice, can be heard throughout David Auburn’s bioplay The Columnist, a finely-drawn portrait of one of the mid-twentieth-century’s most influential and, now, forgotten figures.
At the peak of his career, Alsop’s syndicated column was appearing in upwards of 190 papers each week according to his own figures in the play, reaching countless readers, his influence extending from the 1930s all the way through to the 1970s. Emphasizing fact over gossip, Alsop’s brand of journalism aimed (most of the time) to reinforce the government’s stance on tough issues and to uphold a certain standard of nationalistic integrity, all within the realm of truthful reporting.
As portrayed in The Columnist, Auburn’s first Broadway outing in twelve years (since 2000’s Proof), he’s a man of his convictions and yet a man of contradictions — a family man and a guarded homosexual, a diligent reporter with a sort of unspoken, even repressed understanding that, by towing the party line, his brand of patriotic moralizing can itself collapse under the weight of the 1960s’ tumultuous political climate.
As Alsop, John Lithgow gives one of the finest performances of his career. Having taken home a Tony previously in his role as fictional columnist J.J. Hunsecker in the musical adaptation of Sweet Smell of Success, his understanding of the contradictions of public and private life have been finely honed.
The play begins with Alsop laid bare. He’s relaxing in bed in a hotel in Moscow in 1954 as a young Russian man makes to leave his room after a steamy night. By his own account, the young man is a tour guide, but his self-identification ultimately deceives, and the implications of this night — and of Joe’s crippling fear of exposure — reverberate throughout the remainder of the play, which mainly focuses on Alsop during the Kennedy and Johnson years, portraying his marriage to Susan Mary Alsop (nee Patten; her first husband was the diplomat William S. Patten), with whom Alsop had a not-so-tacit understanding regarding his sexuality.
Critics of the play will likely cite its episodic quality and its tendency to jump through time as its fault. Seeking to cover the period between 1954 and 1968, Auburn’s take plays fast and loose with the facts (the Moscow incident above actually occurred in 1957; Alsop’s divorce was actually 1978, while Auburn moves the collapse of his marriage up by ten or so years for dramatic effect). Much is covered over the course of the play, but the play’s way of speeding through time leads, ultimately, to greater meaning rather than fragmentation, affording we as audience members a chance to follow the twists and turns of a decade-spanning story without having each element spoonfed.
Lithgow is, to be sure, the highlight of the production, imbuing the role of Alsop not only with a great deal of pathos but with an appealing, latently queeny pith. Though he’s a maddeningly difficult character to root for, his genuine affection for his wife Susan (an excellent Margaret Colin) and stepdaughter Abigail (Grace Gummer, 26, playing various states of girlhood) shed light on his more human side. As he’s shutting them out in favor of the preferred clickety-clack of his career, there’s still the sense that he understands the cost of his brusqueness, even if he’s unable not to make the sacrifice.
Similarly excellent is Boyd Gaines as Joe’s brother Stewart, who shared the responsibilities of the column with Joe in the early days of their career. As a younger brother, he lived consistently in Joe’s shadow, and Gaines captures exactly the protective instincts of the younger sibling who alternately idolizes and is wary of his big brother, the shadow looming largest over his career.
As directed by Daniel Sullivan, the play’s movement through time keeps up the brisk pace of the piece, which is often infused with a world-weary tenseness that makes this one of the season’s most thrilling plays. It’s hard not to watch with a certain degree of Schadenfreude as an audience member while Joe conquers the world of journalism and yet fails, often miserably and yet so humanly, in his own life.
Up there with many a greatly-written tragic hero is the fictionalized Joe Alsop, whom playwright Auburn holds up as a sort of broken mirror in an age of bite-sized Twitter journalism — where the sound byte wins and Alsop’s attempts at journalistic ethics are slowly corroding. In the face of it all, even a frightened man, the play suggests, can make the right choice, and in charting the journey of this deeply, flawed, deeply compelling character, The Columnist proves itself a worthy, challenging night of theatre.
Correction: A previous draft of this review misstated Susan Mary Alsop’s first husband’s profession. He was American diplomat William S. Patten, not General George S. Patton.