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April 26, 2012

TT: Alsop's foibles

This week I've written two bonus drama columns for The Wall Street Journal. Today I report on The Columnist, David Auburn's new play. Here's an excerpt.

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1332163124928.jpgDavid Auburn has written a pretty good play about an immensely promising subject. It's the gap between expectation and result that makes "The Columnist" a disappointment, though there's nothing at all disappointing about the Manhattan Theatre Club's production, cleanly and clearly staged by Daniel Sullivan, or John Lithgow's elegantly flamboyant performance as Joseph Alsop, the once-celebrated newspaper columnist who coined the phrase "domino theory." A blue-blooded WASP who supported the Vietnam War long after most of his fellow journalists jumped ship, Alsop got into boiling-hot water when the KGB found out in 1957 that he was also a closeted homosexual and attempted to blackmail him. "The Columnist" revolves around these two facts, but Mr. Auburn devotes far more time and energy to the first one, and my guess is that by intermission you'll be thinking that he should have written his play the other way around.

"The Columnist" starts off, so to speak, with a bang. In the first scene, we see Alsop in bed with Andrei (Brian J. Smith), the young Russian whose job it is to lure him into the clutches of the KGB. But instead of capitalizing on that exciting opening, Mr. Auburn embarks on a stodgy tour d'horizon of the second half of Alsop's life. We meet Stewart (Boyd Gaines), his younger brother, erstwhile writing partner and lifelong rival; Susan Mary (Margaret Colin), the widowed society lady with whom he entered into an uneasy mariage blanc in 1961, and Abigail (Grace Gummer), Susan's daughter; and an unrecognizably fictionalized version of David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken), the earnest young reporter who opposed the Vietnam War as ardently as Alsop backed it.

"The Columnist" covers an 11-year span of time, which is too much for Mr. Auburn to fit gracefully into a two-hour play. In short order it turns into a pageant--the Kennedy inauguration, a side trip to Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination, Joe's divorce, Stewart's death, even an antiwar protest. It would have taken a Tom Stoppard to shape this endless succession of events into a dynamically theatrical plot. Mr. Auburn, for all his skill, lacks that kind of flair, nor does he have Mr. Stoppard's knack for bringing historical figures to life....

Mr. Auburn finds his footing in the more personal parts of "The Columnist," especially the well-written scenes in which Alsop interacts with his wife and stepdaughter (who are portrayed with winning sensitivity by Ms. Colin and Ms. Gummer). He also has Mr. Lithgow in his corner, which makes all the difference in the world. Yes, Mr. Lithgow's Alsop is a slightly over-arch caricature--the real Joe Alsop played it rather closer to the vest than that--but the grandiose panache with which he coaches Abigail for a Latin exam or banters with his Soviet bedmate about the evils of communism is impossible to resist....

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Read the whole thing here.

To see Brian Lamb interviewing Joseph Alsop on C-Span in 1984, go here.

Posted April 26, 2012 12:00 AM

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