Is it fair to ascribe the sophomore slump to a Broadway writer whose second play hit the stage nearly 12 years after the first? Because that seems awfully close to what happened with The Columnist, David Auburn’s follow-up to the Tony and Pulitzer grabber Proof. Columnist, a peek into the life of powerful mid-20th-century journalist David Alsop, isn’t a bad work, but it’s one without teeth, a bio-play that does justice neither to its subject nor to the time period it depicts.
Alsop had an incisive view of life and, particularly, the country he not only chronicled but also tried to push in very specific directions. Columnist, directed by Daniel Sullivan, stays strictly on the outside. This comes despite an intriguing first scene in which we meet a post-coital Alsop (John Lithgow) in a Russian hotel room with Soviet agent Andrei (Brian J. Smith). Yep, he’s gay, and his assignation threatens to rip every fiber off of Alsop’s pristinely preserved veneer. Except while this tantalizing first scene should set us on a journey into Alsop’s heart and mind, it ends up being too roundabout for dramatic sparks to ever fly.
What follows is a fairly safe series of scenes that depict the man in Wikipedia entry form instead of any more galvanizing style. Columnist trudges from this mid-1950s encounter through the 1960s and hits on events both historic (the assassination of his friend JFK, the mushrooming of the Vietnam War, of which Alsop is a proponent) and personal (his marriage of convenience to Washington widow Susan Mary Jay Patten, his combustibly competitive relationship with younger brother Stewart) with a respect for all elite parties involved (the play comes adorned with the kind of beautiful costumes, from Jess Goldstein, and set, courtesy of the busy John Lee Beatty, that one expects from the Manhattan Theater Club).
But all of this is told in a linear, matter-of-fact style; there’s no real angle or thesis to the show. Even when the Andrei thread comes back, Auburn’s tapestry still looks incomplete.
Not that the cast isn’t excellent—a technically excellent Lithgow reprises the snobbish prig touches he’s played before in Sweet Smell of Success and Mr. and Mrs. Fitch, burrowing far beneath Auburn’s material to show Alsop’s compromised but uncompromising heart; he sees change on the horizon but will not bend to it. But it’s when he’s offstage that we learn more about his character and the play offers faint glimmers of hope, notably in the heated exchanges between Stewart (a typically excellent Boyd Gaines) and anti-Vietnam New York Times journalist David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken).
Though these scenes could be woven better into the fabric of the play, we learn more about the toll those turbulent times took on the people living it, as both David and Stewart are privy to far more information than the rest of America, and Kunken sinks his teeth into the gritty role of his shameless investigative reporter.
Margaret Colin, as Susan, also makes the most of her stage time, but it would be nice to see her character’s gradual disappointment with Alsop’s inability to change than simply hear a stirringly delivered monologue about it. As Susan’s daughter, Abigail, Grace Gummer reads a little too stagey, especially when playing Abigail as an early teen. And Sullivan cuts off her final, haunting line before it ever has a chance to resonate.
Questions about Alsop linger long after the end of Columnist. What would have made him happy? Did power corrupt him or did his ego always know few bounds? When all is said and done, the man is more of a mystery than he was when the show began. Chalk it up to miseducation; let’s hope Auburn can ace his next assignment.
Through June 1, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., 212-239-6200, www.manhattantheatreclub.com; $67+.
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