Monday, June 11, 2012

Political Melodrama: The Columnist

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.

Unfortunately, aside from Lithgow the play, directed by Daniel Sullivan, is a failure.  Auburn doesn’t lack talent.  His Broadway hit Proof, about the daughter of a brilliant mathematician whose mind closed down in his latter years, had an intriguing first half and a stunning first-act curtain line.  But it may be the only play I’ve ever seen that fell apart during intermission – when you rewound what you’d seen in your head you realized that he’d left himself only one possible path for the second act, and it wasn’t a good one.  By contrast, The Columnist can’t muster even one interesting act.  It could have worked as a high comedy (I kept wishing the first scene between the Alsop brothers would morph into banter like that of Frasier and Niles on the TV show Frasier), a genre that absolutely allows for more serious investigations.  But Auburn chose to write a melodrama instead:  shallow and predictable. When Susan Mary consoles Stewart, who’s concerned about the health of his (offstage) wife, in a scene that climaxes with a falling out between the brothers, we can see the irony being set up in the wings: Stewart, not his wife, will die of cancer, and he and Joe will never get a chance to reconcile. Abigail brings a boy she’s interested in (Marc Bonan) home from college for Christmas, where he’s grilled mercilessly by proprietary Joe; when, after Joe and her mother have separated, she drops out of school to work full-time against the war – a fact she reluctantly tells him after Stewart’s funeral – and he makes a joking reference to the not-quite-boy friend, she drops the information that he was drafted and is off in Vietnam.  You can see that one coming, too.

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. 

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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