Feature

The Columnist

Joseph Alsop not only spoke to power, he “whispered in its ear.”

Samuel J. Friedman Theatre New York(212) 239-6200

Joseph Alsop not only spoke to power, he “whispered in its ear,” said Ben Brantley in The New York Times. The Cold War–era columnist wrote at a time when nationally syndicated pundits wielded enormous influence over both the public and the politicians they covered. To revive Alsop, the masterful John Lithgow gives this backroom sage “a bespectacled, patrician mask whose default expression is a sneer.” But Alsop was also a closeted homosexual, and Lithgow ably illuminates his contradictions. Playwright David Auburn sometimes lays out the character’s warring traits too conscientiously, as if he were writing “the opening paragraph of a solid-A term paper.” That “dry rustle of reference materials” distracts from what could have been a more gripping drama.

Yet Lithgow keeps the focus where it should be—on character, said Erik Haagensen in Backstage.com. The actor “can go from flashing rage through wounded pride to glittering charm without breaking a sweat.” From the opening scene depicting Alsop’s most vulnerable moment, when he’s photographed during a gay sexual encounter in a Moscow hotel room, Lithgow generates enough sympathy to “see us through a good deal of unpleasant behavior to come.” We’re shown how callously Alsop treated his socialite wife (Margaret Colin), how abusive he was to his brother Stewart, and how his strident support of the Vietnam War wrecked his career. By the final curtain, The Columnist becomes “both a complex character study” and “a surprisingly full portrait of an era of rapid change in American society.”  

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