NEW YORK — Who was
The play, which opened Wednesday at
Remember those days? Me neither. Yet for a good chunk of the Cold War period Alsop was the consummate Washington insider, a proud member of the Harvard-educated WASP elite and a pundit who wrote as much to influence heads of state as he did to sway public opinion.
Alsop had a secret, however, that made him vulnerable to the many enemies he had formed during his career — he couldn't resist a pretty young man in bed. And during one of his trips to the Soviet Union, he was set up by the KGB, which obtained photographic proof of his proclivities. Never one to back down from a fight, especially one involving the Red Menace, Alsop refused to fall victim to blackmail, but the strain of leading a double life took its toll on him and those in his regal orbit.
The story begins in a hotel room in Moscow in the 1950s. Alsop is savoring a post-coital cigarette as Andrei (
The next scene takes place on the night of
As the play systematically points out, however, history, wasn't on Alsop's side. The assassination of JFK, the growing antiwar movement (Alsop was an unwavering supporter of the
To David Halberstam (the ever-reliable Stephen Kunken), a rising
Auburn has essentially written a character study that looks at the way Alsop negotiates his two identities — one supremely public, the other discreetly closeted — in the context of the radically changing landscape of 1960s America. The playwright refuses to reduce a complicated life to a few thematic points, but this virtue turns into a salient weakness as the play conspicuously lacks dramatic thrust.
"The Columnist" proceeds almost novelistically, as Auburn tries to do justice to the personal and political dimensions of Alsop's life. The scenes between him and his family members are well observed, but there's not enough time to explore his curious marital arrangement or his domineering manner with his brother, except to note his deepening (and largely self-imposed) isolation.
In tackling more than it can synthesize, the play often seems diffuse. But despite the flaw in its construction — a flaw that is really a conceptual one, stemming from Auburn's somewhat too passive relationship to his material — the work is engaging as cultural history and, to a lesser extent, as a psychological object lesson. As I said to my friend as we left the theater in the midst of a gathering spring storm, "It's not a bad play for a rainy Sunday afternoon."
A good deal of the credit goes to Sullivan's finely acted production, which in addition to Lithgow (ideally cast as the peremptory patrician), features a first-rate ensemble. Gaines, a four-time Tony winner, has a habit of raising the game of his fellow actors — no doubt because he's so mindful of attending to the dignity of his own character, which he does with marvelous subtlety here.
Colin is quietly moving as the neglected wife who has married a man who can love her only as a dinner party hostess and a cover for his homosexuality. Gummer, famous for being the daughter of
The production, as smoothly executed as Sullivan's lauded staging of "Proof," finds the humanity in even the smallest of roles. Of course, it's Alsop who's most in danger of becoming a blustering caricature. But Lithgow serves Auburn well in revealing the secret sorrow of a man — make that a columnist — who lived his life as though he were the one assigned to write his own front page obituary.