The line between political theater’s players and its spectators is not just porous but practically imaginary in The Columnist, David Auburn’s smart but distracted new play about real-life newspaperman Joseph Alsop. In the play, set in the 1960s, the hawkish, closeted journalist and Beltway mandarin finds himself heading into the worst position imaginable: on the outside. John Lithgow puts on a pair of thick-rimmed O-shaped spectacles and his most WASP-ish demeanor to play Alsop, clucking his tongue and clacking his typewriter keys as he tries to hold onto his influence and, more importantly, righteousness as the Vietnam War he supports slogs on.
Auburn begins by presenting the audience with the play’s loaded gun. Alsop is entrapped by the KGB during a stay in Moscow, caught Red-handed during a romantic rendezvous with a Soviet agent played by Brian J. Smith. This knowledge looms over the rest of the play, as Alsop’s increasingly fractious relationship with his fellow journalists — not to mention his country’s prevailing political mood — puts him in the crosshairs for blackmail.
Lithgow is perfectly cast. He glides across the stage with puncture-proof self-possession, gestures with a deeply ingrained fastidiousness, and speaks in tones forged in the cushy crucibles of Andover and Harvard. Clearly, Alsop is not particularly sympathetic. For one, he’s on the wrong side of history with his support of Vietnam. And he drives away everyone close to him, including his wife-cum-beard (Margaret Colin) and worrying younger brother (Boyd Gaines), with his casual cruelty and insufferable priggishness. And yet, Lithgow lets us understand Alsop even if we can’t bring ourselves to like him. The scene in which Alsop hears news of the assassination of John F. Kennedy (whose ear he once held) is moving in the way national and personal tragedy collide.
Despite Lithgow’s powerful performance, The Columnist spends a surprisingly long amount of time away from its titular character. There are tangential scenes set in Saigon, backstage at the Pulitzer Prizes, and a lengthy subplot involving journalist David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken) — the muckraking, Jewish counterpoint to Alsop’s increasingly obsolescent country-club socialite. Still, it’s a testament to Lithgow’s magnetism that the scenes without him seem like rude interruptions from the main event. B+
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