Broadway Theater Review: THE COLUMNIST (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)

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by Harvey Perr on May 12, 2012

in Theater-New York

THE PROBLEM WITH BEING TOO WELL-MANNERED

David Auburn‘s The Columnist gets the good part over with in the first scene and then proceeds to become exactly the sort of play we might have expected from the author of Proof: clean, articulate, measured, intelligent, carefully researched, and, finally, Saharan-dry and as dull as a persistently cloudy day at the beach.

It helps immeasurably that Auburn gets the glossiest production possible: Dan Sullivan‘s immaculate direction, John Lee Beatty‘s gleaming sets, and as superb a cast as any playwright could dream of, doing everything it can to make their characters vivid and render the play lucid. You can’t help but feel that everything that possibly could have been done to make this a satisfying evening of theater has been done. And there is every reason to expect that an audience leaves the theater, well, satisfied.

The Columnist by David Auburn - with John Lithgow - directed by Daniel Sullivan - Broadway Theater review by Harvey Perr - photo by Joan Marcus

But what about the play? ¬†Although this is ostensibly the story of famed journalist and New Deal liberal Joseph Alsop, who was at one with the patrician image of his adored FDR right down to the elegant cigarette holder, it possesses a progressively conservative tone as it winds its way toward the sort of perplexing ending which makes one wonder why Auburn wrote the play at all and what Alsop ultimately is about in the playwright’s view. If it’s his intention to merely give a contradictory person his moment in the theatrical sun, he has, at least, partially succeeded, even if he never makes clear why we should care about the contradictions.

The Columnist by David Auburn - with John Lithgow - directed by Daniel Sullivan - Broadway Theater review by Harvey Perr - photo by Joan Marcus

If you could possibly arch both eyebrows at the same time, John Lithgow is the one actor to be counted on to do that precisely; the unfortunate thing is that the play doesn’t allow Lithgow to relax either brow, except, as aforementioned, in that first scene.

I guess we better get to that first scene. In it, Alsop is in bed in a hotel room in Moscow, having just enjoyed a sexual encounter with an attractive young Russian male. We are privy, then, to his real nature, hidden from the world most certainly and from his party, almost certainly. The scene is the only one in which Alsop displays his vulnerability and, for a few precious moments, is free of the arrogance which defines his every other move, politically and emotionally.

The Columnist by David Auburn - with John Lithgow - directed by Daniel Sullivan - Broadway Theater review by Harvey Perr - photo by Joan Marcus

And though the subject of Alsop’s homosexuality is certain to find its way into the ensuing drama, the play spins an intricate web in which Alsop’s commitment to the Vietnam War becomes anathema to the Democrats, so much so that the esteemed David Halberstam (does the playwright consider him hero or villain?) wages a war against him. At the possibility that the revelation about his being gay will come into play, Alsop himself reveals that truth to the public (again, while it robs the play of a certain amount of drama, it gives credence to the portrait of Alsop as a complex figure). It turns out that his youthful Russian paramour is a KGB agent and his true betrayer.

The Columnist by David Auburn - with John Lithgow - directed by Daniel Sullivan - Broadway Theater review by Harvey Perr - photo by Joan MarcusAll of this plays havoc with his wife (the marvelous Margaret Colin) and his brother and fellow journalist Stewart (the reliably excellent Boyd Gaines) but, despite the potential confrontations, all of this is treated with a certain remove, a certain politeness that keeps the juices of these characters from freely flowing. It’s as if the more we want to know, the more is kept from us. And what we do get to know, while interesting enough, just never seems to be enough to engage us on a gut level. Less is definitely not more, in this instance.

If Lithgow were given more than two notes to play, he would be as great as the casting of him was perfect. But, alas, all I remember are those arched eyebrows and the traces of humanity in a scene that comes way too soon in the play and from which the rest of the play never fully recovers. And when Alsop insists that he knows more than the public about Vietnam, the rigidity of his stand makes him seem less like the New Deal pundit he was and more like a latter-day Republican.

The Columnist by David Auburn - with John Lithgow - directed by Daniel Sullivan - Broadway Theater review by Harvey Perr - photo by Joan Marcus

Was that, then, what Auburn was trying to say? Why, then, I ask? The Columnist never really deals with the soiled laundry it hints at. Being well mannered is not necessarily the way to get to the deeper truths, without which the theater becomes a safe place, and, consequently, so does the world. And everyone knows the world is anything but safe.

photos by Joan Marcus

The Columnist
presented by Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.
open run ended on July 8, 2012 (86 performances)
for tickets, visit Manhattan Theatre Club

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