Report From New York: Lithgow’s Turn As The Columnist Is A Report From 1963

Coming To A Theater Near You
(Or Not)


By Bill Hirschman

Welcome to our semi-annual scouting trip for shows likely to appear in South Florida in a local production or national tour — or shows you should make a point of seeing/avoiding on your next trip. Among them:  Leap of Faith (starring Miami’s Raul Esparza, just closed), Other Desert Cities (announced for Actors Playhouse next season), Peter and the Starcatcher (based on books by the Herald’s Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson), Once, Nice Work If You Can Get It, The Columnist, End of the Rainbow, Venus in Fur and a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire (recently-extended with an African-American cast). See links at the bottom of each story for previous reviews in the series.

Today’s Review: The Columnist

When does our recent past become history?

How do handle an era which is vibrantly alive in the memories of older audience members yet only an antiseptic chapter in a textbook to younger audiences?

When does Vietnam becomes the kind of once-removed fairy tale for the children of Boomers that their parents’ tales of World War II were to those Boomers themselves?

David Auburn’s play The Columnist does not mean to deal directly with those issues. But they nag at audiences for whom Auburn’s recreation of the pre- and post-Camelot Era of politics either needs nothing but a few passing references for some patrons or an entire dramaturg’s background essay for others.

Being a Boomer who can inject his own memories and those of his parents onto the proceedings on stage, it’s hard to know how effective The Columnist is for a 20-something or 50-something as a somewhat true fable about the dangers of soul-corrupting power when someone luxuriates in the wielding of influence.

But for those who have passed the speed bump birthday, there is resonance in Auburn’s cautionary Citizen Kane tale that tracks the falling arc of newspaper columnist Joseph Alsop, a name once respected or feared by much of the country, now forgotten by much of it.

Alsop was a syndicated Washington columnist for five decades who was both a reporter and commentator, a watcher and a player courted for his support and who privately dispensed opinions to politicians with the expectation that he would be heeded.

A misanthropic curmudgeon who loved being an insider, Alsop was socially liberal, a conservative on foreign policy, an opponent of both Joseph McCarthy and Communism, a Vietnam hawk and, above all, a rabid supporter of John F. Kennedy who he venerated as a sort of Second Coming.

Also masking the merits of Auburn’s script is a blindingly volcanic performance by John Lithgow, directed by the ubiquitous Daniel Sullivan.  The three of them create a monumental multi-faceted single-minded character driven by altruism, patriotism and an ego that needed acclaim as much as oxygen.

Lithgow’s Alsop is petulant, passionate, thoughtful, dictatorial, petulant, caring, cold – an entire laundry list of qualities that Lithgow convincingly encompasses in one personality. While he wants traditional human connections, his Alsop has trouble carving out time for family and friends lost in his shadow.

This Alsop never second-guesses himself, but Auburn wants us to, because The Columnist is shot through with the kinds of observations that the blessing of hindsight exposes for their hubris, self deception and wrong-headedness. Top of the list is Alsop’s conviction that the Vietnam War was not only a correct strategy but one that should have been prosecuted even more vigorously regardless of the cost to American lives. At one point, he berates New York Times editor Scotty Reston for printing the dispiriting reports of Young Turks like David Halberstam. He says, “Yes, you’re damn right I subscribe to the domino theory; I named it!”

Auburn, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Proof, has gently layered in the exposition and the required name-dropping with more finesse than most playwrights. But you have to wonder whether younger audiences, who rarely scan a dead tree publication, can believe a newspaper columnist once had such a potent influence.

In addition to the Tony-nominated Lithgow, Sullivan has a solid supporting case including the lovely Margaret Colin as the loyal wife who agreed to a sexless marriage with the closeted columnist; Grace Gummer as a loving teenaged stepdaughter testing Alsop’s forbearance, and the always dependable Boyd Gaines as Alsop’s brother, Stewart, a writer who spent much of his life trying to establish a life outside his sibling’s orbit.

Given that Florida is the home for the generations who remember Alsop perfectly, given Auburn’s pedigree and the sturdiness of the script, it’s possible someone might try to mount this here. They’ll need someone who can bring epic dimensions to the part, but I’ll bet you can think of at least least one local actor who can fill those shoes.

Previous reviews in the series:
Leap of Faith, click here.
Once, click here
End of the Rainbow, click here
A Streetcar Named Desire, click here.
Other Desert Cities, Click here
Nice Work If You Can Get It, click here
Venus In Fur, click here.

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