Over the decades, a great many people found reasons to dislike the syndicated political columnist Joseph Alsop (1910–1989). Beginning in the 1930s as a cautiously pro-FDR New Dealer, he had moved rightward by the time of the Vietnam War to become a noisily uncritical militarist. An unabashed elite snob, proud of his own political influence, he was also a firmly closeted homosexual, who never let his same-sex preference steer him toward solidarity with gays or any other oppressed group. He stands as an immaculate example of how anti-Stalinist moderates, scrambling to shake loose any taint of Communism after World War II, morphed into the neocons who fathered today’s lunatic right.
Not a happy story, Alsop’s tale also isn’t particularly theatrical, except for the one small event with which David Auburn’s The Columnist (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre) begins. Visiting Moscow in the mid-1950s, Alsop (John Lithgow) has a sexual encounter with a man he thinks is a pliant Intourist guide (Brian J. Smith)—who naturally turns out to be a KGB plant. In real life, Alsop immediately defused the incident by writing down the whole story for U.S. intelligence.
Auburn tries, not too convincingly, to link the scene thematically to the rest of his play. He invents a subsequent encounter, years later, between Alsop and his Soviet sex partner. He shows the strain Alsop’s hidden gayness put on his “white” marriage to Susan Mary Patten (Margaret Colin), a socialite with a teenage daughter (Grace Gummer) by her first marriage. He paints, in painstaking detail, the messy mixture of love, male bonding, and sibling rivalry in Alsop’s relationship with his younger brother Stewart (Boyd Gaines), a subordinate co-author of Alsop’s column till he finally declares independence, and the replay of that relationship with younger rivals like the Times‘s David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken).
Auburn depicts all this, tidily and cogently, in astute, economical strokes, handsomely carried out in Daniel Sullivan’s tidy, cogent production. The acting is excellent throughout, with Colin movingly gracious in her repressed sorrow, and Lithgow matchlessly at ease whether in blustering rage, dithering snit, or beaming condescension. But the evening rarely catches fire, except when Gaines or Kunken flares up, duplicating exactly the acrid fury banked inside all great political reporters. But beyond these occasional flashes, The Columnist offers only a biographical string of column items, tautly written, but still not a drama. Michael Feingold