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“The Columnist” Tells All
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47 Street
Opened April 25, 2012
Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday - Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm & 8pm, Sunday at 2pm & 7pm
Tickets: $67-$121 212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons April 28, 2012
For many people the very name of journalist Joseph Alsop is anathema. Although he was a critic of Senator Joseph McCarthy, he was also a cold war warrior and a staunch supporter of the Vietnam war, even after it became obvious to many observers that the war was not winnable.
The power of David Auburn’s new play about Alsop, “The Columnist,” is that Auburn makes Alsop, if not exactly likable, certainly very human. In great part thanks to John Lithgow’s brilliant portrayal of the man, we see Alsop with all his warts and scars. But somehow he never seems ugly.
The play, well directed by Daniel Sullivan, opens at a low point in Alsop’s life, an incident in Moscow when he was caught in a homosexual relationship with a soviet agent. Thus we know immediately Alsop’s great secret and the threat that hangs over him.
The agent, a man named Andrei, is played with wily sensitivity by Brian J. Smith. Andrei’s conversations with his mark reveal Alsop as a pompous intellectual with a broad steak of neediness. It also shows how the journalist delights in the political scene, which he both shapes and observes. He is a powerful man with an Achilles heel.
Some of the best scenes in “The Columnist,” however, are those that show the personal side of Alsop. Having decided to marry Susan Mary Patten (the excellent Margaret Colin), the widow of his friend, the diplomat William Patten, Alsop becomes stepfather to her daughter, Abigail (Grace Gummer). Contrary to his stern persona, Alsop proves to be indulgent, loving and understanding. He teaches Abigail Latin but also understands that she lives in the 20th century.
Alsop’s relationship with his brother and onetime partner, Stewart (Boyd Gaines, wonderful as always) begins with discomfort and ends with confrontation, as Stewart tries to convince his brother to take a more reasonable approach to the war in Vietnam. But the central issue in his personal life is his sexless marriage, which ends in a moving scene between Lithgow and Colin, filled with recriminations and regret.
John Lee Beatty’s very effective set takes us from a Moscow hotel room to various rooms in Alsop’s D.C. home to a local park, and a bit more. His set is an important element in setting Alsop in his natural environment.
“The Columnist” spans many years and covers many events in Alsop’s personal and political life. Jack Kennedy is assassinated. David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken) takes on the war, wins his Pulitzer and tries to convince Stewart to rein his brother in. This is both the play’s strength and its weakness.
Those who prefer a more focussed drama may find “The Candidate” too loose to be effective. But for this reviewer, the scope of “The Candidate” serves mainly to provide a complete and insightful portrait of a complicated man.
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