Saturday, April 21, 2012

THEATER: The Columnist

It's not hard to see what attracted David Auburn (Proof) to a historical subject like Joseph Alsop. The twenty odd years covered by The Columnist (1957-1978) were tumultuous ones for America, and Alsop (played here by a tightly wound, ever-graceful John Lithgow), setting aside for a moment the contrast between his closeted homosexuality and vociferous jingoism, represents a case study in the transition from one era to another, as ambitious journalists like David Halberstam (an earnest Stephen Kunken) and youthful idealists like his step-daughter Abigail (normally played by Grace Gummer; I caught her fine understudy in the role) begin to contest and supplant his domineering hold on "facts," particularly when it comes to Vietnam.

But the reason for columnists in the first place is that facts alone (sadly, in many cases) do not convey a story, and Daniel Sullivan's staid direction makes The Columnist a rather boring affair -- Good Night and Good Luck as opposed to Frost/Nixon. These twenty years prove to be too much for Auburn, and his scenes stack uneasily atop one another; Lithgow has the opportunity to acquit himself nicely as the years wear him down, but others -- particularly his knowing wife Susan (Margaret Colin) and younger brother (Boyd Gaines) -- are presented as sounding boards for Alsop, not characters in themselves. Much of the "drama" takes place in the elided years, and what's left is so eager to score intellectual points with its connections and parallels that it forgets to forge emotional ones. This is truest, structurally, in its use of Andrei (Brian J. Smith), a Russian who Alsop twice encounters. The first time is a delicate, sexual meeting that leads to betrayal (it's a KGB sting); the second is an deliberate, sexless meeting that leads nowhere. In fact, that's how the play ends, with Alsop -- forgiving, at last, but also very much alone -- sitting at his desk, unable to write another word about it.

I suspect audiences who lived through these times may find the historical resonances more compelling, even though they're so artlessly thrown in our faces (unlike, say, the far more thrilling and subtle Mad Men). But I doubt that'll be enough to overcome the dramatic inertia of The Columnist, a play that feels as alive as newsprint and about as timeless.


Amanda Brohman said...

Hi, you mentioned that you saw Grace Gummer's understudy in this role? When did you see the play? I saw a preview a few days ago and then it was played by Grace. Do you know why Grace didn't play it? Would be great if you could answe me!



Aaron Riccio said...

I was at the Friday night performance (April 20). No idea why she was out, but these things do happen; that's why they have understudies. ;)