There is a moment in The Columnist where Joseph Alsop (John Lithgow), a longtime political journalist, is arguing with someone over the phone. He's shouting at a newspaper man named "Scotty." I somehow instinctively understood it was Scotty Reston* he was talking to and did not think twice about it. By the end of the play, many names from 1960's era journalism and politics are bandied about without explanation or context. If you are not familiar with the who-s, you might find yourself frustrated and less interested in the where, what and whys of The Columnist. But if you can keep up with the people and places being discussed, this portrait of a difficult, irascible man is well worth your time.
Alsop was a close confidant of JFK. He relishes the influence he has, the proximity to power and the value given to his counsel. Gadfly to Alsop is David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken), a scrappy Saigon based reporter for the New York Times, challenging the status quo of Alsop's views on Vietnam and representing the voice of a different generation of journalist. Alsop's brother, Stewart (Boyd Gaines), was for a time his writing partner but Stewart breaks off to write on his own. Stewart nevertheless remains Joe's protector. Joe marries a Washington widow, Susan Mary (Margaret Colin) who is aware of Joe's sexual preferences, and creates a home for her and her daughter Abigail (Grace Gummer).
David Auburn's play, directed by Daniel Sullivan, crafts a stunning character portrait of Alsop, his contradictions, and many of his un-loveable qualities. What's more, he's given two stellar actors, Lithgow and Gaines, a chance to dig deep into these two brothers who are inexorably linked but who have such different temperaments. Stewart Alsop is thoughtful, patient, and kind. Joseph Alsop is sharp, harsh and strident. They have the ability to care most deeply for one another and the power to hurt each other more deeply than anyone else. For me, these actors in these roles, make this play work. The shifting generations, class warfare and the changing tide of American public opinion are all themes underlying the work. But putting aside, JFK, Vietnam, communism, and the fate of America, the real stakes at issue in the play are the relationships being portrayed. Questions of loyalty and principles abound. The play gives space for questions about men who hold onto their principles, falter with them, or become controlled by them. These themes dovetail nicely into the deeper historic issues but ultimately how this played out within and among the family members brought me to tears.
Lithgow has the showier role but Gaines is heart-breaking as the man who stands by Joe no matter what Joe says or does. Gaines makes the cost of that choice palpable and devastating. It's a beautiful and subtle performance. Lithgow nevertheless deserves credit for bringing delicate shading to a character who is larger than life. He finds the humanity in a man who did not always prioritize such a thing. Kunken as Halberstam is also noteworthy. It's an important role in the play to give context and perspective outside of Joe Alsop's driven personal POV. Kunken plays both hotheaded young man and seasoned journalist with specificity and aplomb.
Auburn's play offers Alsop a moment to reflect on his choices, his regrets, and where his principles have gotten him in the end. I may have wanted more of that in balance with the rest but the play made me walk out the door thinking of these things beyond just my time in the theater--a welcome consequence of seeing great actors and challenging writing on Broadway.
*I have no idea where I pulled that out from. I read Katharine Graham's autobiography once and I was a bit Watergate obsessed as a kid. Who wasn't? But I wondered if others were following along or possibly wanted more background which Auburn does not give.