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The Columnist

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 25, 2012

The Columnist by David Auburn. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Jess Goldstein. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Original music & sound design by John Gromada. Projection design by Rocco DiSanti. Hair & wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Cast: John Lithgow, Margaret Colin, Boyd Gaines, Stephen Kunken, Marc Bonan, Grace Gummer, Brian J. Smith.
Theatre: Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Schedule: Tuesday at 7 pm, Wednesday at 2 pm & 7 pm, Thursday at 8 pm, Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 2 pm & 8 pm, Sunday at 2 pm.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, with one intermission.
Audience: Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Ticket prices: $67 - $121
Tickets: Telecharge

John Lithgow and Margaret Colin
Photo by Joan Marcus

The Columnist, the new play by David Auburn that Manhattan Theatre Club just opened at the Samuel J. Friedman, is many things, but above all it's an escape drama. It focuses on Joseph Alsop, an influential media commentator who at his height in the mid-20th century was published in some 200 newspapers, fighting for what he perceives as truth, justice, and the American way while chained to both the restrictive social standards of his era and the typewriter that gave him his voice. Will he transcend himself and his restrictions before the world eats him alive?

If you're not sure how anyone could make answering that question—or, given Alsop's real-life history, not answering that question—an involving theatrical event, that's a fair reaction. Yet Auburn, his director Daniel Sullivan, and their star John Lithgow manage it, and handily. In examining Alsop (1910-1989) in his prime, from the mid 1950s to the late 1960s, they never lose sight of the lonely, hurting, and determined man whose impressive career was marred by bad choices, even as they chronicle and critique the world around him he didn't want to change.

Auburn's grasp of Alsop's go-with-the-flow-but-control-it behavior is a big part of what helps the action make sense. You see his rage against Communism become a mania. You see his confusion as his Republican politics melt into idealism with JFK's election, a transformation that becomes a devastating loss just a few short years later. And you see him attempt to live a "normal" life with a wife (Susan Mary, played by Margaret Colin), even as you see him also pursue a brief sexual fling with a Soviet bureaucrat named Andrei (Brian J. Smith) that turns out to be defining as both a mistake and an element of his personality.

That encounter was secretly photographed, and the resulting images passed into American hands in ways that would seem to threaten Alsop's public supremacy, if not merely his judgment. But power offers its own protections, and even when that information is used against him, chiefly by a jealous journalist named Halberstam (Stephen Kunken), Alsop braves it all with a sniffing indifference that all but announces, "I'm above this, now leave me alone to do my work." He's right, and if you don't do what he asks you'll suffer the consequences.

John Lithgow and Boyd Gaines
Photo by Joan Marcus

That in some way or another everyone, including Alsop's brother and occasional collaborator Stewart (Boyd Gaines) and Susan Mary's daughter Abigail (Grace Gummer), does suffer imbues the work with a harrowing, almost tragic quality. This is accentuated by Auburn's intelligent structuring of his subject's biography (he begins with Alsop and Andrei, post-coitus, then proceeds on with scattered snapshots from the next two decades), Sullivan's fast-moving and sensitive direction, the attractive and fluid design (sets are by John Lee Beatty, costumes by Jess Goldstein, lights by Kenneth Posner, and projections by Rocco DiSanti), and especially Lithgow's fine performance.

It can be hard, at times, to separate his portrayal here from that of his work as another newspaper magnate, J.J. Hunsecker, which he played to martini-tart perfection in the musical Sweet Smell of Success back in 2002. Lithgow displays many of the same qualities here, foremost among them an intensity of purpose and a relish of the finer aspects of Alsop's work, not least the sway he holds over so many of the people about whom he writes.

But it's his undercurrent of resigned sadness that truly completes the characterization. Lithgow's Alsop clearly revels in what he can do, but that's never enough for him. His existence is tinged with loneliness, which is never more pronounced than when he's with Susan Mary or Abigail; he's never more "somewhere else" than when he's with them, as though he can't comprehend why they're there, or why they'd want to be. (A major second act plot point has them reconsidering this as well.) But when his stony facade cracks, which it does only in private moments (when learning of JFK's shooting, or trying to complete his weekly piece in the hours immediately after), you learn just how scared and solitary he is. Lithgow's is a satisfying, humanizing take on someone who could too easily be rendered as a passive-aggressive monster, and it centers the production.

Which is not to say the rest of the acting isn't first-rate, too. Colin is wonderful as the "trophy" wife who makes a bargain she doesn't know she can't follow through, and guides the character so gracefully and gradually from acceptance to avoidance to abandonment that you fully understand (and just may agree with) the shattering opinion she develops of Alsop and herself. Gaines makes for an effective, starchy corrective to Lithgow, letting Stewart be the sensitive but realistic guidepost by which his brother's personal greatness is forever measured. Gummer's Abigail is righteously rebellious, if not annoyingly so, and Kunken is excellent as the deceptively well-intentioned Halberstam. Smith and Marc Bonan, who plays Abigail's temporary college boyfriend, are fine, but struggle against their brief appearances to make lasting impressions.

Alsop and everything surrounding him, however, have no trouble. Whatever your view on the past or current media establishment, there's no arguing that Alsop-like figures once wielded enormous control over what people thought and how they thought it, and that such grips are not loosened easily. The Columnist, then, becomes as much about journalism as one man's doomed crusade within it; the questions it asks about what should be revealed, when, and to whom, and the degree to which those doing the unveiling should be part of the story, are with us yet today, even as our Alsops have all but died out. But in Auburn, Sullivan, and Lithgow's hands, for better or worse, he and what he represented remain vibrantly, violently alive.

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