Explaining in a recent interview why he chose to write about the now-obscure political reporter Joseph Alsop, David Auburn said he was intrigued by faded glory. “How do you go from being that central figure,” mused Auburn, “to being, at first, a kind of joke and then almost forgotten?” You have to wonder how self-reflective the playwright was feeling. It’s been 12 years since he opened a show on Broadway—the excellent Proof, which critics (myself included) hailed as the return of the well-made play. Maybe those hosannas were excessive, but Proof was damn good and deserved its many awards. Did all that success ruin Auburn? After a couple of minor Off Broadway efforts, he’s back with The Columnist, the sort of safe journeyman work that, at best, would headline a season at the Guthrie or Seattle Rep.
Spanning the years between 1954 and 1968, the play charts a turbulent time in American history and the career of Washington power player Alsop (Lithgow), a syndicated opinion-monger who styled himself a New Deal Democrat, hard on the communists and staunch in his support of the Vietnam War. Alsop was flamboyant, imperious, acid-tongued and also gay—a detail central to The Columnist’s plot but never explored very deeply. Rather than an incisive portrait that might connect Alsop’s sexuality to his ideological stance, we get a well-scripted history lesson that ticks off JFK’s election and assassination, the Vietnam quagmire and Alsop’s refusal to accept defeat in Southeast Asia. Other subplots involve Alsop’s rivalry with his younger brother, Stewart (Boyd Gaines), his unconventional ménage with a wife and stepdaughter (Margaret Colin and Grace Gummer), and an afternoon tryst with a Russian man (Brian J. Smith) that haunts him.
John Lithgow is a natural for this kind of role, and he may be doing his best stage work. His Alsop is a vigorous, contradictory figure, brimming with intellectual fire and just a dash of camp. Lithgow has always combined great strength (physical or mental) with a touching vulnerability, an almost girlish embarrassment flickering somewhere behind the eyes. As self-righteously monstrous as Alsop grows, Lithgow never completely loses our sympathy. And yet Auburn never gets us inside his subject, beyond the suggestion that he was more like his enemies than he would ever admit (note the semi-homophony between columnist and communist).
The world doesn’t need more monologues, but you wish Auburn had told this story with a single voice. Let’s call this Auburn’s sophomore slump. And hope he makes his next deadline before another decade passes.—David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote