“Power…influence…changing the course of history. It’s all in a day’s work.”
This is a line stated by the main character of THE COLUMNIST. I love when theater merges history and fiction to tell a story that I never heard before about a fascinating life.
THE COLUMNIST, playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club is one such play. It’s about a real journalist named Joseph Alsop who upon a visit to Moscow in 1957 picked up a young man at a party and brought him back to his hotel. This is the first scene in the play. When you’re watching it, you may not pick up the clues that this one event is about to impact his entire life. I can’t way that I did.
Little did Alsop know that the guy was working for the WGB and was having them secretly photographed. Immediately afterwards the next day, he was informed that if he didn’t agree to serve to act as an agent for the Soviet Union after that, he would be exposed as a homosexual and put in prison. He avoids prison, and he avoids exposure, which 60 years ago was not an easy act. However, the KGB sent these photos to his colleagues – both journalists and government officials – and he would spend the better part of his career dancing around them. This powerful play by David Auburn (who wrote one of my favorite plays PROOF) explores how this one incident impacted his entire life, his relationships, his work, everything.
At first, he thinks he has it all when he comes back to the U.S. He’s proud of himself. He tells his brother and future wife (who we learn knows of his true sexual preference and agrees to marry him regardless), “If you’re with me, you’re guaranteed a good table.” Reporting is his first love – “Don’t you want to write for the people that matter?”, he asks his brother wen trying to talk to him into working with him and leaving the NY Post where his brother is happily entrenched. A friend to JFK, a supporter of the Vietnam War, a conservative who was Anti-Communist and tough on Johnson, Alsop was an extremely popular journalist and very tight with government officials who gave him important data. He proudly tells his lover at the start of the play that his work appears in 190 newspapers and that he makes very good money from them. Unfortunately, his personal and work life collide and he has a gradual demise.
John Lithgow is incredible as Joseph Alsop. He’s a man torn with who he really is and Lithgow has his mannerisms and dispositions down pack. It’s clear that he was born to play this role. Boyd Gaines, another theater legend (think CONTACT, GYPSY and my favorite THE HEIDI CHRONICLES), is very solid as his brother. He plays a conflicted man about his brother’s fate when he is presented the elicit photos by a fellow journalist. How long can he keep his brother from finding out he is gay when he marries a woman to project a completely different reality? Joe’s wife is played by Margaret Colin and I felt her torture being married to someone she could never really have. Born in a time where women were not yet liberated, my heart ached when she declared to Joseph, “I want to feel necessary” on the night of JFK, Jr.’s death when there is nothing she can say to console Joseph. Grace Gummer as Abigail, Joe’s step-daughter, continues to amaze me. She is definitely surviving the curse of being a very famous actress’ daughter and she can certainly stand on her own two feet. The rest of the supporting cast are also mention-worthy, too: Brian J. Smith, Stephen Kunken and Marc Bonan. The set also deserves a mention. Words drape the stage between scenes and the sets are lush and perfect for the time the play takes place in.
THE COLUMNIST is playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club at 261 West 27th Street and it’s been extended through July 8th. Check out John Lithgow talking about his character:
For more information on MTC, please visit www.ManhattanTheatreClub.com.
Tickets for THE COLUMNIST are available by calling Telecharge at 212-239-6200, online by visiting www.Telecharge.com, or by visiting the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre Box Office (261 West 47th Street). Ticket prices are $67 – $121.
Disclosure: I was provided with complimentary tickets to facilitate this review.