John Lithgow is a chameleon who can play anything from a TV serial killer ("Dexter") to a charming con in a Broadway musical ("Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"). In "The Columnist," the new bio-drama by David Auburn ("Proof"), he does a brilliant job with Joseph Alsop, the Washington political pundit who wielded immense power through his syndicated newspaper column. Supported by a solid cast, Lithgow finds the humanity in this irascible, obsessive and quite unlikable demigod. But neither he nor helmer Daniel Sullivan can do the impossible: manufacture a play out of the scattered events of Auburn's well-articulated but loosely structured scenes.
THE COLUMNIST Broadway Reviews
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...what “The Columnist” will be about has been laid out as conscientiously as it might be in the opening paragraph of a solid-A term paper. And in his first full-length play since the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Proof” (2000), Mr. Auburn carefully follows through and expands on every element in that early scene. As an old-fashioned architect, he can’t be faulted here. But he doesn’t furnish his rooms so that they feel genuinely lived in. The masterly director Daniel Sullivan (who also staged “Proof”) and a very good cast that also includes Margaret Colin and Boyd Gaines do their best to bring flesh to what remains essentially an annotated outline. Sometimes they succeed. But you always hear the dry rustle of reference materials in the background — of time lines, headlines and lists of famous names to be included.
Playwright David Auburn has pulled off a nifty trick in “The Columnist,” his new play about mid-20th-century political scribe Joseph Alsop. Faced with a fascinating protagonist but lacking a strong plot, Auburn has devised an ingenious structure of subtly accreting scenes that generates considerable forward motion, coalescing in both a complex character study and a surprisingly full portrait of an era of rapid change in American society. Under Daniel Sullivan’s unerring direction, John Lithgow delivers a riveting turn in the title role of this crackling entertainment.
It is up to the experts to debate the facts about this complicated fellow, a New Deal liberal, a WASP Republican, McCarthy foe, war hawk and closeted gay whose fortunes soured along with Southeast Asia. As theater, however, director Daniel Sullivan's beautifully acted production -- with its seemingly effortless turntable set with the hallucinatory flying typewriter letters by John Lee Beatty -- digs swiftly and stylishly into the intersections of the personal and the political.
Straightforward is the way “The Columnist” goes, in Sullivan’s sure-footed direction, Auburn’s smooth narrative arc, and a sterling performance by John Lithgow, who makes a wonderfully nuanced Joseph Alsop. Also solid are the portrayals of the supporting cast: Boyd Gaines as his brother, Margaret Colinas the friend he eventually joins in a marriage of convenience, Grace Gummer as her teenage daughter, Stephen Kunken as the young whippersnapping New York Times reporter David Halberstam and Brian J. Smith as a bedroom trick during one of Alsop’s trips to Moscow.
In tackling more than it can synthesize, the play often seems diffuse. But despite the flaw in its construction — a flaw that is really a conceptual one, stemming from Auburn's somewhat too passive relationship to his material — the work is engaging as cultural history and, to a lesser extent, as a psychological object lesson. As I said to my friend as we left the theater in the midst of a gathering spring storm, "It's not a bad play for a rainy Sunday afternoon." A good deal of the credit goes to Sullivan's finely acted production, which in addition to Lithgow (ideally cast as the peremptory patrician), features a first-rate ensemble.
Despite Lithgow's powerful performance, The Columnist spends a surprisingly long amount of time away from its titular character. There are tangential scenes set in Saigon, backstage at the Pulitzer Prizes, and a lengthy subplot involving journalist David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken) — the muckraking, Jewish counterpoint to Alsop's increasingly obsolescent country-club socialite. Still, it's a testament to Lithgow's magnetism that the scenes without him seem like rude interruptions from the main event.
Alsop helped cajole and bully first John Kennedy, then Lyndon Johnson, deeper and deeper into the Vietnam War. Did this shoot-first-ask-questions-never attitude have anything to do with his carefully concealed (yet widely whispered-about) homosexuality? Or with KGB threats to publish evidence of his “degeneracy”? Or just his unshakably aristocratic worldview? (“We don’t give two shits what they want to read! We tell them what they need to know!”) In The Columnist, playwright David Auburn engages these questions ever so gingerly, ultimately giving Alsop a bit too wide a berth. He wants the man wreathed in mystery—a great dying-WASP tragedy—but he also wants to convey a Britannica’s worth of specific didja-know historical info: The dialogue is smart and sharp enough, but The Columnist, in toto, feels both didactically chalky and oddly evasive.
The Columnist, it turns out, is well written, nicely designed, talky, and a little bit dull. The whole show is Lithgow, who--in his gray suit, bow tie, and specs--gets to the heart of a man full of withering sarcasm, humor, jingoism, and rages. He's terrific. And I'm gladder than ever that I'm out of the closet.
The portrait that emerges – Manhattan Theatre Club's "The Columnist" opened Thursday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre – should send a chill down the spine of any pundit who begins to think he or she is bigger than the story. Director Daniel Sullivan has tried to make each scene stand on its own, but the result is a play that may be more fun to perform than watch.
Equipped with arrogance, fearsome intellect, vitriol and the punctilious armor of a man forced to live in denial, John Lithgow fully inhabits influential journalist Joseph Alsop in The Columnist. Director Daniel Sullivan brings his customary clarity and focus to a series of pithy scenes that place Alsop near the center of some important chapters in 20th century American political life. But while this is a potentially fascinating character study with no shortage of meaty material, playwright David Auburn hasn’t managed to shape it into a drama with a discernible through-line.
"The Columnist" doesn't manage to make Alsop's particular case, and, granted, he was a particular case, quite enough of a metaphor for the American moment. We're not allowed to feel and think beyond the biography. That issue is exacerbated by classy but very careful and gentle production from director Dan Sullivan that uses dignified, measured transitions to capture the affluence of Alsop's upper-class, Georgetown milieu, but never allows Lithgow or his foes to fully let loose. For sure, these were wound-tight personalities dedicated to propriety, and this articulate cast surely captures that element of the national discourse. Still, one finds oneself wanting a couple more of these very civilized scenes — especially those between Lithgow and Margaret Colin, who plays Susan Mary Alsop, an in-name-only wife — to descend into staccato rage.
John Lithgow is a natural for this kind of role, and he may be doing his best stage work. His Alsop is a vigorous, contradictory figure, brimming with intellectual fire and just a dash of camp. Lithgow has always combined great strength (physical or mental) with a touching vulnerability, an almost girlish embarrassment flickering somewhere behind the eyes. As self-righteously monstrous as Alsop grows, Lithgow never completely loses our sympathy. And yet Auburn never gets us inside his subject...The world doesn’t need more monologues, but you wish Auburn had told this story with a single voice. Let’s call this Auburn’s sophomore slump. And hope he makes his next deadline before another decade passes.
Static and slow, the play would benefit from some reworking. Nevertheless, Dan Sullivan's detailed production benefits from an excellent cast of stage veterans. Lithgow fits easily in the role. He emphasizes Alsop's temperamental personality, which becomes increasingly fragile as he lives through the cultural changes of the 1960s.