Joseph Alsop and his brother, Stewart, were kingpins of the opinion pages after World War II, when syndicated columnists meant fear and respect in an era before the Internet empowered everyone to be a publisher. David Auburn’s new historical drama “The Columnist” illuminates the different sides of Joseph Alsop, who went on to write the column alone _ and in about 200 newspapers — after Stewart became a reporter for The Saturday Evening Post.
In “The Columnist,” which packs a tidy punch in a down-to-earth telling, Alsop is a mercurial know-it-all who was a curmudgeon long before he reached the age when such crankiness is tolerable, if not excusable. The two-act play, which the Manhattan Theater Club opened Wednesday night, is convincingly written by David Auburn, who wrote “Proof,” and directed by Daniel Sullivan, who also staged “Proof” on Broadway.
Straightforward is the way “The Columnist” goes, in Sullivan’s sure-footed direction, Auburn’s smooth narrative arc, and a sterling performance by John Lithgow, who makes a wonderfully nuanced Joseph Alsop. Also solid are the portrayals of the supporting cast: Boyd Gaines as his brother, Margaret Colinas the friend he eventually joins in a marriage of convenience, Grace Gummer as her teenage daughter, Stephen Kunken as the young whippersnapping New York Times reporter David Halberstam and Brian J. Smith as a bedroom trick during one of Alsop’s trips to Moscow.
Straightforward is not the way to describe Alsop, who was a closeted gay man all his life — except for one point when the KGB found a way to momentarily open the door by arranging a tryst to expose him. But Joseph Alsop was always right, according to himself, and decided to outplay the Communists he shellacked in his columns; he let his close government pals know he’d been duped — pictures were secretly taken. Given that he was feared, widely read and trusted in a way people no longer trust opinion makers, he was never exposed, even by the group of young up-and-coming American reporters in Vietnam who received copies of the pictures and were the object of Alsop’s rage because they didn’t blindly accept the U.S. government line.
Alsop was a conservative who hugely admired John F. Kennedy, and became a friend. “The Columnist” makes the case that Kennedy’s murder was a turning point for Alsop — and indeed, it was pivotal for journalism, as coverage of the assassination brought TV news coverage into its own and the press became less palsy-walsy with politicians. In the play, Alsop reacts to all this by digging in, rooting unfailingly for increased American involvement in Vietnam and generally hating the youth movement, the counterculture and anything new.
The production is designed by John Lee Beatty, whose gives Alsop an imposing library in his Washington, D.C., home. Rocco DiSanti’s video projectionhas bits of datelines and lead sentences streaming across the top of the stage as new scenes begin and in one effect, the lettersmade of light fall onto the scenery like snowflakes. For Joseph Alsop, it was a blizzard — a baby-boom was coming into adulthood and perceiving him as a poster-codger for The Establishment. It may even have been an avalanche.
Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
“The Columnist” is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, on 47th Street near Eighth Avenue, New York.