At the American Blues Theater
by Dan Zeff
Chicago – David Auburn’s “The Columnist” at the American Blues Theater will make the biggest impact on spectators of a certain age, like audiences who remember when powerful journalists like Joseph Alsop played a major role in American political life.
Alsop is the columnist of the play’s title, a complex man, at least in Auburn’s biodrama, who was a potent voice among the American government’s in crowd from the early 1930’s to the mid 1970’s. At his peak of popularity, Alsop’s column appeared regularly in 300 American newspapers. But he was just one of a number of journalistic power brokers of the time, along with such media stars as Walter Lippmann, Edward R. Murrow, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, and Walter Cronkite.
Back in the mid 1900’s, the American people actually got their news from newspapers and not biased TV networks and unverified social media. In the play, Alsop casually remarks, “Every major city has five or six (newspapers). Morning, afternoon evening. Even the smallest town has its own weekly. It’s one of our greatest strengths.” What a difference a generation makes!
Alsop was a patrician, smug, somewhat pompous man who did not suffer fools gladly, fools being anyone who disagreed with him politically. He was one of the most hawkish hawks during the Vietnam War, selling the conflict as a national priority even after the tide of American sentiment had turned against it. His unyielding support of the war diminished his power, especially among the country’s protesting youth. Alsop lived until 1989 but the last 15 years of his life he was a faded figure from an earlier time who refused to recognize the shifting political winds.
The 10-scene play opens in a Moscow hotel room in 1954. Alsop has just completed a sexual tryst with a young Russian man that turns out to be a setup by the KGB to blackmail the American. Alsop’s closet homosexuality is a subterranean theme throughout the play, which ends with a confrontation between Alsop and the young Russian in downtown Washington, D.C., 14 years after the initial encounter.
The supporting characters include Alsop’s younger brother and fellow political writer Stewart; Joseph’s wife Susan, a Washington hostess who he married with a full disclosure of his gay persuasion; Susan’s precocious teenage daughter Abigail; and young New York Times writer David Halberstam, who opposes Alsop’s Vietnam War stance and thus incurs the older man’s contempt. They all fill out the palette of Auburn’s narrative but it’s always Joseph’s play, the others coming and going as sounding boards for Alsop’s major conflicts, both personal and professional.
The ABT staging profits from the casting of Philip Earl Johnson as Joseph Alsop. Johnson carries the play as the egotistical, droll, hyper-articulate central character, whose urbanity could vary from charming to insufferable. It may be difficult today to envision a journalist influential enough to guide the policy of presidents, but such was the power of the press back then, especially in the hands of intimidating figures like Alsop, a persuasive writer as well as a passionate true believer. No such man, or woman (talk show hosts notwithstanding) lives among us in today’s political landscape.
The play starts slowly and most of the dramatic impact surfaces in the second act, with the Vietnam War protests outside Alsop’s window and his assorted domestic conflicts with his wife and his brother. Alsop never fully recovered from the shock of the John F. Kennedy assassination, which gave him a permanent sense of personal loss as well as eroding his power base among the Washington political elite (Alsop was relentlessly antagonistic to Lyndon Johnson).
The characters that surround Alsop in “The Columnist” are more thinly drawn, especially brother Stewart and wife Susan. There was much affection between the Alsop brothers but their professional relationship was uneasy. Susan has only one meaningful scene, a cry from the heart at the emotional gulf between her and her husband, mostly created by their lack of a sex life, though Joseph alerted her before their marriage that he was gay and physical intimacy was not on in their relationship. The three lesser characters of the Russian, Halberstam, and Abigail actually provide more dramatic punch than Susan and Stewart.
The cast is first rate. Johnson’s Joseph Alsop is the heartbeat of the play but Coburn Goss as Stewart, Kymberly Mellen as Susan, Tyler Meredith as Abigail, Christopher Sheard as the Russian, and Ian Paul Custer as David Halberstam all perform well. Meredith in particular injects an impressive amount of youthful sizzle into her few scenes as the teenager, a liberal at odds with her conservative stepfather. There is much disagreement between the two but also a family bond that Alsop especially feels deeply.
The play ends on a problematical note, with Alsop sitting alone at his typewriter late at night after voluntarily committing the only decent act we see from him all night. It makes for a touchy feely conclusion to the play that I didn’t buy for a moment. Generosity of spirit was not in Alsop’s nature when revenge was available.
Keira Fromm’s directing starts at a leisure pace but she raises the dramatic temperature the second act, turning what had been a casual talky show into a real attention grabber. Joe Schermoly’s scenic design effectively relies on the movement of a few props (designed by Alec Long) to change locations. Christopher Neville’s costume design nicely reflects the 1960’s. Jared Gooding designed the lighting and Christopher Kriz the sound plan.
When “The Columnist” opened on Broadway in 2012, the production was a personal triumph for John Lithgow as Alsop. Auburn’s drama loses nothing by casting Philip Earl Johnson in the role. The play splits its identity between social history and character study, with character study winning. The world of Joseph Alsop isn’t our world, but good acting is good acting and that we see in abundance at the ABT.
“The Columnist” will be performed through April 1 at Stage 773, West Belmont Avenue. Most performances are Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $19 to $49. For reservations and information, telephone 773 327 5252 or visit www.AmericanBluesTheater.com.
The show gets a rating of 3 stars.
Contact: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com February 2017
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