The talking heads on cable only wish they wielded the power newspaper columnists of old had. They were titans who formed public opinion and whispered in presidents’ ears.
Sure, vestiges remain, a powerful writer, here and there, and certainly some cable commentators and radio personalities fire up crowds. But Joseph Alsop (1910-1989) was hugely influential as a widely syndicated columnist, with an Ivy League education and family ties to the Roosevelts. As John Lithgow portrays him in “The Columnist” presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, he is a man convinced he is at the center of the universe.
In many ways he is. But that universe was bound to implode.
Lithgow, as always, is excellent. There is a very good reason he has earned two Tony Awards, five Emmy Awards and two Oscar nods. He plays Alsop as arch, prissy, closeted and intellectual. He’s not very easy to like, and really, why would he care if you don’t like him?
Boyd Gaines (“Gypsy,” TV’s “The Good Wife”), reliably affable, plays Stewart, Joseph’s brother and former writing partner. Margaret Colin (TV’s “Nurse Jackie” and “Now and Again”) is Susan, his classy wife, in a marriage of convenience; he needs a hostess for important dinner parties and a woman to quiet the buzzing about his homosexuality. She preferred to be married and have a tasteful home for her and her daughter, Abigail (Grace Gummer, TV’s “Smash”).
Gummer convincingly plays a 15-year-old in her first scenes. Though she never tries to upstage anyone, she is just such a lovely presence that you want to watch.
Set in a fascinating time, beginning in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration, it segues into Camelot and later the Johnson years. Alsop adores President Kennedy, loves the style of first lady Jacqueline, and is a confidante of the president. Really, life was going very well for him.
As excellent as the actors are, and as interesting as this time is, the play drags. Maybe it’s the overly neat framing device. Or maybe it’s that even as history whirls — JFK’s inauguration and assassination, the Cold War, the Vietnam War – the play just does not feel connected to the history.
“The Columnist” opens with the singularly glorious clacking of Alsop banging out a story on his manual typewriter. Soon he’s in Moscow, having just finished an afternoon tryst with a young Russian.
Alsop and Andrei (Brian J. Smith, “Come Back, Little Sheba,” TV’s “SGU Stargate Universe”), his young Russian lover, have a few fun exchanges. Alsop asks if he has heard of McCarthy. “The one who thinks everyone is a Communist?” Andrei says. “We like him.”
“He’s a contemptible thug,” Alsop retorts.
Many are, according to Alsop, including Norman Mailer.
Alsop lives a well-ordered life, with servants and precision. He refers to himself as WASP-ish, and Lithgow plays that perfectly.
The play references other journalists, and David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken, “Enron,” TV’s “Gossip Girl”) is important enough to warrant a role.
Certainly people grow and change, at least one hopes. But as Alsop ages, the same man who saw through McCarthy becomes rigidly right wing and reactionary. The audience could use more tension to show that he was living the end of an era, when a columnist of his standing could not only get the president on the phone, but have the president actually listen.
Without this tension, the play becomes about a very intelligent, acerbic gay man. And though some scenes are wonderful, such as his quizzing Abigail for her Latin exam (and well done on the Latin!), it just was not quite enough.