by David Auburn
Directed  by Kate Alexander
Starring  Jeffrey Plunkett
Florida Studio TheatreÕs Keating Mainstage
1241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota, (941) 366-9000
February 1 through  April 7, 2013

Reviewed  by Marie J. Kilker 

Not a play in the usual sense, The Columnist chronicles the career of Joseph Alsop via dramatized  episodes in his life and pursuit of facts and fame. It opens in a Moscow hotel  room where the closeted gay anti-Communist  has just had a fling with Andrei. (HeÕs a pawn for the KGB, whose attempts to blackmail  Alsop will become important  in Act II.) Alsop, via  Jeffrey PlunkettÕs wonderful  blend of arrogance and intellectual  authority, takes time to justify his anti-Communist  stance along with what about America  justifies his patriotism.  Then author David Auburn takes him off from 1954 to 1961 to his Georgetown home on the night of the inaugural of John F. Kennedy, to whom heÕll have extraordinary access.  From then on, Joe will back Democratic  administration  causes.  Though, for instance, he dislikes Lyndon Johnson, he joins his Viet Nam involvement. The strangely liberal conservative Alsop remains  always against Communism, even naming the domino theory, but strongly opposes McCarthyism.    

Instead of a central  dramatic  conflict, Joe--as a result of several stretched out or tepid ones--gradually loses those close to him, important  in his life and work.  Central to both was his brother and long-time collaborator  Stewart . (Robert Gomes demonstrates forcefully why he could find professional contentment  only on his own, though he loved Joe and defended his reputation.) In the case of his wife Susan (attractive-to-anguished  Rachel  Moulton), his honesty about his sexuality didnÕt make up for her hope for a change. Why wasnÕt her success as a social  secretary  and party giver to the socially and politically powerful enough for her? Could his success as a tutor and surrogate father to Abigail not carry over to that stepdaughterÕs political  philosophy and activism? (Marie Claire Roussel ages convincingly in every way, never becoming a stereotype like so many 1960s-70s characters do onstage.)

Perhaps the biggest contradictionregarding JoeÕs fall from power is that it wasnÕt due to Russian Communist revelations. Those were expected to be broadcast to and by fellow journalists, whom he especially denigrated for their reporting on the war in Viet Nam. (TheyÕre well represented by sharp Michael Zlabinger, portraying David Halberstam.) WasnÕt blackmail simply out of the question? The play shows why. If Alsop ends as a loser, it seems to be to change. Whether good or not ultimately is left to audiences to decide for themselves.
 Largely due to a cast well tuned to some good dialogue by Auburn and realistic direction by Kate Alexander. Scenery relies on minimal well-chosen furnishings and good light cues, making for snappy scene changes . Everything is worth watching, not to be enthralled or excited by, but perhaps to learn something or recall things forgotten or pique oneÕs curiosity to delve more into the period covered or its journalism.

Production Stage Manager: Kelli Karen. Handsome Costumes: Sarah Bertolozzi.
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