by David Auburn
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Starring John Lithgow, Margaret Colin and Boyd Gaines
A Production of the Manhattan Theatre Club
at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Reviewed by David Spencer

The Columnist by David Auburn, is what I think of as a “stage biopic,” its subject being the controversial political journalist and pundit of the 1940s through 1970s, Joseph Alsop. It doesn’t, thankfully, try to synopsize his entire life, but it does indeed try to encompass the breadth of his career, starting in the mid-late 50s when he was not only at the top of his game, but the height of his powers. It takes him from a homosexual bedroom encounter with a pickup who would prove to have been a Soviet agent involved in a plot to discredit him; to his Washington D.C. home and career, bolstered by his strong relationship with the Kennedy White House and an upcoming marriage of convenience to a knowing fiancé with a daughter (two daughters in real life); through his slow fall from grace, popularity and (to some degree) credibility in the years following the Kennedy assassination, which left him without many of the longtime supporters who buttressed his power base.

                        Alsop (John Lithgow) is certainly an interesting figure for dramatization—more complex, in a dramatic sense, than the likes of Walter Winchell and Louella Parsons who wielded their influence like a cudgel, because Alsop, neither easily sanctified nor easily demonized, was a genuine patriot who took pride in basing his columns upon genuine reportage and not rumor—but he still requires onstage definition as if he were not a real-life historical figure, because, of course, as a character, he must also exist independently within the play. And in this, playwright David Auburn faces a conundrum. One the one hand, he paints a vivid portrait of the man; on the other, for nearly all of the first act (of two), you can smell the research and feel the careful ordering of expositional information. Auburn’s too gifted to deliver that stuff stiffly, or in dialogue that’s so transparently functional that it rings falsely to the ear…but he cannot hide the cumulative sense of a dramatized biography beholden to an academic understanding—despite that its series of private encounters is but a speculation of what might have happened away from historical scrutiny or record. Once the pieces are in place, however, and the nuances of Alsop’s relationships with his brother (Boyd Gaines), wife (Margaret Colin) and stepdaughter (Mamie Gummer) are well, anchored, Act Two’s speculation seems somehow liberated…perhaps because by then we pretty well know the essential facts, and Auburn need no longer evoke them for context. And that lets the human drama finally lift off.

                        As the cast list would imply, The Columnist is expertly acted, but in keeping with its semi-formal approach, director Daniel Sullivan has eschewed any overt effort toward verité realism in favor of a style a little more heightened, a little more determinedly theatrical—a style, indeed, out of the 40s through the 60s, when it wasn’t even a style at all, but rather, the accepted currency for “imitation of life.” And it’s all quite fitting. And in keeping with both the play’s strengths and weaknesses.

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