|John Lithgow and Grace Gummer in The Columnist|
John Lithgow gives a fine performance as political analyst Joseph Alsop in David Auburn’s new play The Columnist (currently receiving a Broadway production under the auspices of the Manhattan Theatre Club). Alsop’s career began in the 1930s but Auburn focuses on his decline in the sixties, beginning with the KGB’s photographing him in bed with one of their plants, a young Soviet man (Brian J. Smith), on a trip to Moscow, through his intensified conservatism during the Vietnam War, when he turned his syndicated column into an ongoing tirade harassing Lyndon Johnson for not taking a tough enough stance on the war. The play locates JFK’s assassination – it occurs just before intermission – as the moment that turned Alsop bitter and remote; he had been one of Kennedy’s most enthusiastic supporters (he was sure Kennedy would find a way to solve all of the problems plaguing America in the early sixties, including Vietnam and the Cold War) and a close friend.
Auburn balances the deterioration of Alsop’s journalistic reputation – as his colleagues, including his brother and one-time collaborator Stewart (Boyd Gaines) and the gifted young war correspondent David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken), who wins a Pulitzer at thirty, find his political position increasingly remote and irrelevant – with the disintegration of his marriage. His wife is Susan Mary Alsop, a widow and a long-time friend who marries him knowing that he’s gay but, we learn eventually, hopeful that she can get him to return her sexual affections. In Auburn’s version of events, it’s not just her self-delusion that wears away at their marriage but his increasing emotional unavailability to her while he forges a close relationship with her daughter Abigail (Grace Gummer). Lithgow’s strongest moments, not surprisingly, are the ones where Joe lets down his guard and reveals the kind of feelings he prefers to keep to himself: shame and embarrassment when his Soviet lover, Andrei, seems hurt at Joe’s suggestion that he was pimped by a friend at the American Embassy (Andrei is faking it: he was pimped out, though not by the Embassy); anguish at Kennedy’s death, which he won’t show until Susan Mary and Abigail have both left the house; shock when, after he and Susan Mary have separated (messily), Abigail admits to him that she figured out his sexual orientation long ago and assumes everyone else did too. Another highlight of the performance is the scene where Joe turns mean after Susan Mary confesses that she’s lived in hope that his “nature” would change. The marvelous actress Margaret Colin is cast as Susan Mary, and I wish I’d seen her play this scene, but at the matinee I attended her understudy, Charlotte Maier, stepped in, and she was merely serviceable in the role.
Gaines is a very good actor but the role of Stewart doesn’t give him much to do, at least not in this melodramatic context. I didn’t buy Kunken as Halberstam – his vocal affect is too contemporary for the 1960s. (Auburn suggests that Halberstam’s intercession was the reason that the KGB’s attempt to discredit Alsop didn’t bring his career to a crashing halt.) But it’s good to see Lithgow, an outsize personality, in a big stage role, and he takes advantage of it.