The year is 1957. The place, a luxurious hotel room in Moscow. Enter Joseph Alsop, arguably the most influential political columnist of the mid-20th century and master of foreign affairs as well as DC machinations. He plops into bed, calling to an unseen intimate who’s in the bathroom.
The figure that emerges turns out to be a strapping youth in boxers named Andrei (Brian J. Smith), who insists his interest in bedding the middle-aged patrician was a need for companionship, though his story sounds fishy. This was the McCarthy era, mind you, and public exposure of Alsop’s homosexuality would have meant career suicide.
No doubt this is one foreign affair that will come back to haunt the highbrow journalist.
And that’s just the first of many engrossing, finely etched scenes in “The Columnist,” David Auburn’s portrait of an opinionated man who won himself a seat at John F. Kennedy’s roundtable during the Camelot years. A trusted confidante of the young president, Alsop’s dinner parties were the talk of Georgetown.
“Politics is human intercourse at its most sublimely ridiculous and intensely vital,” he says, establishing motivation for his life’s work. The piece also chronicles how he fell from power — plummeting so far and so fast his name is now likely to evoke blank stares among today’s media movers and shakers.
We also get a glimpse into the way some journalists — real, rigorous, erudite newsmen — operated back then, before the once-venerable news media fractured into so many bits of unchecked blowhards and bloggers and tweeters. The bespectacled, bow-tied Alsop prided himself on backing up the arguments in his op-ed pieces with actual reporting — he didn’t just spout opinions. Syndicated in hundreds of newspapers across America, his informed diatribes shaped public opinion and policy.
Sound a little too esoteric and dry for Broadway? Perhaps. In fact, playwright Auburn is more successful at character study than sustained dramatic tension.
And let’s face it, the entire enterprise would be a snooze were it not for the strong cast led by John Lithgow, a two-time Tony winner who gives a virtuoso turn as the complicated, polarizing figure, delivering Alsop’s caustic witticisms with charm and finesse.
“I’ve never had a communist before,” Lithgow’s Alsop deadpans, with just the right note of bemusement, to his male companion.
“The Columnist” serves up an at times fascinating mix of actual and imagined events. We see a giddy Alsop at home on the night of JFK’s inauguration, trading barbs with his journalist brother Stewart (four-time Tony winner Boyd Gaines, in fine form) and Susan Mary (Margaret Colin), a vivacious social whiz who organized the parties and later became his wife — and beard. He invites her teenage daughter, Abigail (Grace Gummer), to join him in a glass of champagne.
“Brains and balls, finally, in one package,” he says of the new president.
Cut to a dive bar in Saigon years later, where Stewart locks horns with David Halberstam (a terrific Stephen Kunken), the crackerjack New York Times reporter covering the Vietnam War, over the Alsop brothers’ ideology.
Meanwhile in DC, there are growing tensions with Susan Mary, who always knew about his sexual proclivities and figured it wouldn’t be an issue. She was mistaken. It’s not long into the story before blackmail threatens to derail the columnist — it seems his Soviet companion was a KGB agent and compromising pictures were snapped.
“The Columnist” reunites the creative team responsible for the Tony-winning “Proof” back in 2001. In addition to Auburn (who won the Pulitzer), on board are director Daniel Sullivan, John Lee Beatty (set design), Jess Goldstein (costumes), and John Gromada (original music and sound design).
Indeed, although not living up to its predecessor, this Manhattan Theatre Club production is first-rate. Especially artful are the scene transitions, punctuated by projected typewritten excerpts from Alsop’s pieces, clackety-clacking across a supertitle screen. Toward the end, the type is garbled, just like his reputation.
A key catalyst in Alsop’s downfall was his stubborn refusal to admit that the Vietnam escalation was a tragic mistake, preferring to listen to cronies in high places instead of those down in the trenches. His nemesis Halberstam (who would later author “The Best and the Brightest,” the definitive indictment of American folly in Southeast Asia) dismisses his prose as “just piss and venom.”
As this bio-drama vividly shows, Alsop came to embody The Establishment, a label nobody wanted in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. He becomes an out-of-touch, conspiracy-theorist curmudgeon who fails to appreciate the influence of pop culture (he scoffs at the Beatles). An unfortunate scene late in the play features an unlikely reunion, which, in its haste to tie up loose ends, feels awkward.
As the deposed king of columns fights to restore his stature, he says, “Don’t expertise and authority mean anything anymore?” I suspect that lament continues to echo down the halls of newsrooms everywhere.
THE COLUMNIST | Samuel J. Friedman Theatre | Manhattan Theatre Club | 261 W. 47th St. | Through Jun. 24 | Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m. | Wed., Sat.-Sun at 2 p.m. | $57-$121 | telecharge.com