nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 27, 2012
Joseph Alsop was one of the most powerful and influential journalists in America during the middle third of the 20th century: he was related to the Roosevelts, an intimate friend of JFK, and a vocal champion of the Vietnam War; he was also a homosexual in a time when public knowledge of that fact could have been ruinous, and the target of attempted blackmail (set up by a young Russian man with whom he had sex one afternoon in Moscow) by the KGB. The details of Alsop's life would seem to lend themselves naturally to compelling drama, and the thematic avenues they suggest—the myopia of America's establishment elite with regard to what we now call the "99%", changing perceptions about the glory of war, shifting views of privacy (apparently Alsop's homosexuality was a closely guarded secret protected by the likes of LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover); not to mention the insights into humanity afforded by Alsop's double life and complicated relationships with his wife/beard, Susan Mary, and his brother and sometime collaborator, Stewart—feel pertinent, interesting, and important.
So how is it possible that playwright David Auburn's The Columnist is so darned boring?
Somehow, Auburn has managed to write a play about Alsop that is superficial, shallow, and dull. Scenes depict some of the intriguing events of Alsop's life and hint at the man's insecurities, passions, and apparently mercurial, self-absorbed nature. But Auburn never imposes much in the way of perspective on the material; in fact from scene to scene I was never sure if I was supposed to be rooting for Alsop (as, say, the sad, lonely victim of a prostitute who pretended to care for him) or be appalled by him (as when he grills the unsuspecting boyfriend of his step-daughter about the Vietnam War).
John Lithgow, who plays Alsop with relish and vigor, doesn't much clarify what our attitude toward the man ought to be; it's a performance made up of grand but disconnected vignettes that, if Auburn had provided it, might have been glued together with a climactic moment of self-awareness. We care more for the characters of Stewart and Susan, portrayed with real humanity by Boyd Gaines and Margaret Colin but woefully underwritten. Even the Russian callboy/spy Andrei (Brian J. Smith) gets more opportunities to claim our compassion than the play's protagonist.
Daniel Sullivan has directed the play for Manhattan Theatre Club on a standard-issue set by John Lee Beatty in dutiful fashion. Good actors Stephen Kunken and Grace Gummer fill out the cast (as, respectively, David Halberstam and Susan's daughter Abby). It ought to be enough to make for a fulfilling Broadway theater experience, but the lack of substance in the playwriting defeats it.
One final note: Auburn has based his play on fact but many of the details are fictionalized (for example, Susan had two children, and neither was named Abby; Stewart died in 1974, not in the 1960s as is suggested here). A note in the program to help us separate history from dramatic license would not only be welcome but feels pretty mandatory given the spicy allegations that pepper the piece. (Did Joe Alsop invent the phrase "Domino Theory," for example, as he claims in the play? I found nothing to substantiate that claim in an (admittedly quick) search on the internet.) If there's anything to learn from Auburn's cursory examination of Alsop's life, it would be useful to know what the man really did, and what the playwright imagines him to have done.