In the opening scene of David Auburn’s new historical drama The Columnist, American journalist Joseph Alsop (John Lithgow) tells the incredulous young Communist he’s just had sex with in a Moscow hotel room (Brian J. Smith) that in the United States there are thousands of newspapers, and that every big city has papers galore. The audience gave a laugh, more bitter than sweet.
But The Columnist begins in 1954, when the powerful (and secretly gay) political columnist visits the Soviet Union, and back then every town did have a newspaper, and reporters could indeed be serious political players – though few so much so as the self-satisfied and irascible Alsop.
After that seminal first scene, the play resumes in Washington DC on the inauguration night of JFK, of whom Alsop is both a friend and a fan, and he’s giddy with delight as he envisions himself as Merlin in this new Camelot. Alsop also chooses this moment to announce to his brother (and his former co-author of a joint column) Stewart (the always excellent Boyd Gaines) that he is marrying Susan Mary (Margaret Colin), a gracious established political hostess and a widow. As the elated Alsop urges his brother, his fiancée and her daughter Abigail (Grace Gummer) to celebrate, he’s at his apex – and yet the patrician pundit’s arrogance and lack of empathy are stunning, even when he manages to charm both his family and the audience with his undoubted intelligence and delight in turning a phrase.
As the play continues, we see that his stay on this pinnacle is short lived. After John Kennedy’s assassination, Alsop’s influence in the halls of power wanes, his marriage falters, his new daughter (on whom he dotes) starts spreading her teenage wings, younger journalists start to question his methods and his motives – and the events of that long-ago Moscow afternoon come back with a vengeance.
Well directed by Daniel Sullivan, it’s a griping story, based on true facts, but more than anything, this play’s a character study. Alsop, as Lithgow plays him, is certainly a self-centered snobbish bully, and his enthusiasm for politics is clearly at least as much about gaining power as it is about ideology. But he’s also genuinely smart and, in his own way, principled, and there are hints of a sometimes touching insecurity, even humility, underlying the bravado, and Lithgow manages to make of the contradictions a single, deeply flawed human being.
In comparison, everyone else on the stage is a mere foil, but the rest of the highly talented cast manages to make the most of their underexplored characters. Colin gives a convincing portrayal of how the geniality of even the most well-bred, experienced Washington hostess can wear thin as her marriage of convenience starts to fray, while Gummer handles Abigail’s shift from charming child to anti-war activist with aplomb. Gaines is, as always, a standout as the brother Alsop loves but can’t keep himself from provoking.
Living through his losses, Alsop, unlike his brother, may be the antithesis of grace under pressure. And the final twist of the play, though not unbelievable, betrays more sentimentality than might be expected from the plummeting pundit. But it’s not entirely out of keeping with the portrait the play has left us of a man determined to uncover the truth and speak his mind – except when it came to revealing himself.