It's not hard to see why John Lithgow was attracted to the role of Joseph Alsop, portraying a syndicated newspaper columnist whose arguably incomparable influence over presidents and American foreign policy lasted for some four decades.
Not only was Alsop ideologically complex — his lifelong, white-shoe conservatism tempered by his affection for President John F. Kennedy— but he also stuck around long enough to become a defiant dinosaur in a changed world. Later years found him huffing and puffing about David Halberstam of the New York Times and the new generation of anti-war long-hairs, in a column that once was on the vanguard itself.
But Alsop's remarkable journalistic career is not all that informs playwright David Auburn's interesting and involving, if not wholly satisfying, new Broadway play "The Columnist," which opened Thursday night at the Friedman Theatre, a production of the Manhattan Theatre Club. It begins in a Moscow hotel room in 1957. Alsop is in bed with a handsome young Russian (played byBrian J. Smith). Although Alsop thinks the well-spoken young man came willingly to his boudoir, the gentleman is, in fact, a tool of the KGB, which snaps a few pictures as a souvenir. And since Alsop often played rough himself — trying to get Halberstam (Stephen Kunken) fired from the Times — those incriminating photos were useful to his many enemies, if only as a threat. In the dramaturgy of this play, Alsop's closeted homosexuality thus becomes a kind of tragic flaw in his armor.
Given how incremental change can get overlooked until you suddenly understand there has been a revolution, Auburn's involving play is a very useful and potent reminder of how much things have changed for the better, and how the need to hide an aspect of themselves undermined so many brilliant political men of not so long ago. That category certainly included Alsop, who wrote for a time alongside his less testy and more cautious brother Stewart (warmly played by Boyd Gaines), whom Auburn treats as a wise, see-all-sides advisor who didn't quite know what to do with brother's polemical sharp edges.
In general, though, "The Columnist" doesn't manage to make Alsop's particular case, and, granted, he was a particular case, quite enough of a metaphor for the American moment. We're not allowed to feel and think beyond the biography. That issue is exacerbated by classy but very careful and gentle production from director Dan Sullivan that uses dignified, measured transitions to capture the affluence of Alsop's upper-class, Georgetown milieu, but never allows Lithgow or his foes to fully let loose. For sure, these were wound-tight personalities dedicated to propriety, and this articulate cast surely captures that element of the national discourse. Still, one finds oneself wanting a couple more of these very civilized scenes — especially those between Lithgow and Margaret Colin, who plays Susan Mary Alsop, an in-name-only wife — to descend into staccato rage.
Auburn is clearly challenged by the need to make Alsop likable, which he does partly by showing us his affection for his adopted daughter Abigail (Grace Gummer), but also by making Alsop a genuine patriot who believes so much in his country that he even, in the final analysis, believes it will accept him for who he is, in totem. That's quite a moving moment — Lithgow's performance is compelling and vulnerable throughout, as far as he is able to go — but "The Columnist" still leaves you feeling like you don't quite have the full measure of the man doing the writing for so many more like him.
"The Columnist" plays on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit manhattantheatreclub.com