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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE COLUMNIST
at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

CONTROL THE STORY
By MATT WINDMAN

  John Lithgow and Boyd Gaines/ Ph: Joan Marcus

Joseph Alsop, one of the most notorious and influential newspaper columnists of the mid-20th century, is now just a footnote in the history of print journalism. But in his career and personal life, playwright David Auburn, best known for writing the 2000 Pulitzer-winning play Proof, has found more than enough scandal, sex and secrets to craft an intermittently engaging bio-drama focusing on Alsop’s difficult personality, closeted homosexuality, political conservatism, rabid anti-communism and unwavering support for the Vietnam War.
 
John Lithgow, who previously portrayed J.J. Hunsecker, a powerful journalist based on Walter Winchell, in the musical adaptation of the film Sweet Smell of Success a decade ago, plays Alsop.
 
The play begins in 1954 with a shirtless Alsop in bed at a Moscow hotel with a young Soviet male (who is in fact a spy sent by the KGB to entrap Alsop). He spends the remainder of act one, set in the early 1960s, bragging to friends and family about his supposed power as a journalist and personal connections (Eleanor Roosevelt apparently once cooked him eggs) and talking up John F. Kennedy’s political agenda.
 
He maintains awkward but tender relationships with his new wife (Margaret Colin), who is all too aware of his homosexuality, liberal-minded stepdaughter (Grace Gummer) and even-minded brother (Boyd Gaines), who is a less well-known journalist.
 
David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken), who covered Vietnam and the civil rights movement for The New York Times, speaks out against Alsop and, later on, mysteriously receives risqué photos of Alsop.

The play would benefit from some reworking, as it is pretty static in nature and all the supporting characters come off as superficial. The best scenes lie at the end of the play, where Alsop reconnects with his stepdaughter and then with the Russian male from the first scene in a surprise encounter. Nevertheless, Dan Sullivan’s well-staged production benefits from an excellent cast of stage veterans.
 

Lithgow, wearing Alsop’s trademark round glasses, throws himself into the role, emphasizing the self-loving character’s temperamental personality and becoming increasingly fragile as his life is affected by the culture shifts of the 1960s. The characteristically excellent Gaines makes the most of his underwritten role, as does the elegant-looking Colin. 

 


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