Is there anything more delicious than a good play about politics? Joseph Alsop (John Lithgow) is a nationally syndicated op-ed writer who believes the words “terrorize” and “interrogate” are synonymous with “interview.” The Columnist follows Alsop for two decades of his forty-year career—from his battles with Joe McCarthy in the early ‘fifties to his cheerleading of the Vietnam War throughout the ‘sixties. Alsop, a closeted homosexual, has a rocky English marriage with Washington socialite Susan Mary Jay Patten (Margaret Colin) as well as a strained relationship with his brother and sometimes partner Stewart (Boyd Gaines). Though a lifelong Republican, he worships FDR and Kennedy—and ultimately, his run-ins with popular opinion over escalation in Vietnam lead to his decline in credibility.
Playwright David Auburn touches on some of the twentieth century’s most famous moments—and Alsop brushes elbows with some of its most famous figures—but he never gives in to the temptation to wink at and nudge his audience. We spend a great deal of the second act listening to Alsop rant about how we will win in Vietnam, but there is nothing jokey about this, as if we are supposed to laugh at his lack of foresight. He is a man who stands behind his convictions, and he is so articulate and so passionate that we almost believe he is right. Earlier, the Kennedy assassination is handled with particular gracefulness: Alsop hears his stepdaughter cry out offstage, and Mary enters to tell him he had better come see the television. Mr. Auburn trusts our intelligence, he doesn’t need to give us silly lines before this moment about how the president is going to be in Dallas—the look on Ms. Colin’s face is all we need. In the following scene, Alsop, despite his close relationship with Kennedy, decides to skip the vigil and work on his piece for the next day. Picking away at his typewriter, he only takes a moment to cry—for the professional newspaperman, it is more important to record than to experience.
The Columnist does not have any especially demanding roles, but the cast does a good job with what they have been given. Mr. Lithgow, who floods his stage with his saliva, is ideally cast as the affected WASP who knows that he has earned his arrogance. He has a clipped timing that is perfect for all of Alsop’s witty replies and one-liners, but he can also deliver the more emotional scenes with a bubbling repression that suits the part—Alsop’s confident erudition masks a supremely vain man who fears exposure almost as much as he fears rejection and irrelevance. And Mr. Gaines proves an excellent foil. Haggard and sensible, he is always negotiating Alsop’s paranoia with reality, even while he is quietly dying of Leukemia. He always seems exhausted and beaten down—he has spent too many years absorbing his brother’s maniac energy, has heard one too many of his personal stories about Jack Kennedy or “cousin Eleanor.”
The Columnist is no masterpiece, but it is a fine play and a classy one, too. There may not be any great moments in it, but there are no bad ones either. That is no small feat.