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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
But Alsop, like so many before and after him, lived long enough to learn that power is inevitably finite, especially if they piss off their liberal friends as he did with his zealous support of the Vietnam War. It's when the people who for years never failed to return his phone calls no longer felt that attention must be paid, that David Auburn, in his new play, The Columnist, has Alsop complain about the lack of respect for experience and authority.
Auburn's script has Alsop's stepdaughter, who was born after World War II, ask "Who's Wendell Wilkie?" so people under sixty might well ask "Who's Joseph Alsop?" — unless, like the 42-year-old Pulitzer-winning Auburn (Proof), they studiously peruse past news in order to understand more recent events.
The average theatergoer's lack of familiarity with Joseph Alsop and his brother Stewart, his long-time column partner and a character in the play, or David Halberstam (who also makes several appearances), may actually be to the advantage of Mr. Auburn's choice of Alsop as his subject. There's a certain nostalgic appeal in the portrait of a Washington power broker whose column appeared in 190 of the country's thousands of newspapers, as many as five or six of them in any major city. The influence wielded by a few opinion writers like Alsop will be a revelation in the light of thousands of bloggers having their say (granted without having access to places like the White House).
The years of Alsop's life and career, beginning in 1954 and moving forward to the 1960s, that frame Auburn's bio-drama are rife with dramatic potential. The play's focus on the Vietnam era evokes timely parallels between the blunder of our invasion of Iraq and the long conflict that followed. Alsop's personal history, which includes his homosexuality, takes us back to a time when such sexual preferences were still mostly closeted and fronted by conventional marriages.
Of course having John Lithgow playing the title character insures a subtle, fully dimensioned portrayal. With Daniel Sullivan, who also directed Proof, at the helm, and John Lee Beatty designing the set, MTC audiences are also assured of a smoothly staged production..
Lithgow does indeed capture Alsop's snobby patrician ways and semi-British accent. He lets us see the egotism and the insecrutities that drove him, and also the increasing weariness and despair after his brother's death. But neither Beatty's nifty rotating, Sullivan's fluid direction or the other excellent actors can overcome the play's problem of too much and too little:
The play's focus on Alsop's obsessive support of Vietnam, gives the audience too little of the otherwise almost liberal conservative who, during the days of his partnership with his brother, vigorously denounced Senator Joseph R. McCarty's Communist witch-hunting. On the other hand, by stuffing twenty tumultuous years' worth of facts into a two-hour play, Auburn has somehow failed to use the other characters to give his play emotional resonance along with all those facts. Thus the actors playing his late in life wife (Margaret Colin), his brother (an oddly be-wigged but, as always excellent, Boyd Gaines), and a young, fiery David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken) can do just so much with characters who seem there mostly to present certain facts and points of view as dialogue.
One of the more emotionally resonant scenes is a reunion between Alsop and his stepdaughter (ably played at the performance I saw by Grace Gummer's understudy Adria Vitlar) at his brother's graveside. The best and most dramatic scene is Alsop's bedroom encounter with a USSR tour guide (Brian Smith) who's being used in a Soviet KGB sting operation that Alsop courageously nipped in the bud before it could destroy him. This first scene with its peppery dialogue is book-ended by a too manufactured second park bench encounter in DC that sends Alsop back to his typewriter and an overly understated ending.
Fortunately we're not quite down to one newspaper for the whole country yet, as was the case when Alsop and Andrei, the young Soviet, had their liaison. Papers like The New York Times still have room for regular and guest columnists like Joe Nocera and Eric Alterman, to talk about Joseph Alsop and this play. While neither Nocera or Alterman are likely to wield the influence of a Jospeh Alsop, their articles caused enough of a bump in ticket sales to extend the play's run even before the official opening. Links to both very enlightening pieces herewith:
Slings & Arrows- view 1st episode free
Anything Goes Cast Recording
Our review of the show
Book of Mormon -CD
Our review of the show