Review: “The Columnist”

Coburn Goss, Philip Earl Johnson. Photo by Johnny Knight


Where: American Blues Theater at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through April 1
Tickets: $19-$49
Phone: 773-327-5252

Theater Critic

American journalism has undergone a sea change since the middle of the 20th century when newspaper columnists like Joseph Alsop (1910-1989) wielded enormous power and influence over U.S. presidents and other politicians. But cautionary tales of men undone by their own hubris probably will endure long after the last paper folds.

That’s the story playwright David Auburn (“Proof”) tells in “The Columnist,” a fictionalized look at Harvard-educated Alsop, who few may remember today but who at one time had the most syndicated column in the country, “Matter of Fact,” which his Yale-educated brother, Stewart Alsop, wrote jointly from 1946 to 1958. And in the current politicized climate of huge egos and thin skins, the Chicago premiere at American Blues Theater, impeccably cast and directed by Keira Fromm, seems even more relevant than the original production in 2012.

Auburn tracks Alsop’s career from 1954 through mid-1968, illuminating both his public and private lives and the intersection of the two. He also suggests how shifting times can transform staunchly held opinions from assets to liabilities in those who are too inflexible to see the writing on the wall.

The play opens in a Moscow hotel room, where Joe (Philip Earl Johnson) has just had sex with Andrei (Christopher Sheard), a young Russian who says he’s a tourist guide. Their conversation, peppered with wit, reveals both Alsop’s arrogance and his vulnerability, a blend Johnson brilliantly mines throughout the evening. Self-described as a member of the “WASP Ascendency,” he’s haughty in manner and hawkish in his beliefs (particularly his anti-Communism and promotion of the Vietnam War), though he’s initially a New Deal liberal, opposes Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and sees the election of John F. Kennedy, Jr. as the start of an exciting new era in Washington, DC.

His Achilles heel in that hotel room is that he can’t accept that Andrei would like him for himself—and it turns out he’s right. He later learns that the assignation was a KGB set up, and it him all his carefully closeted life. However, when the Soviets send photos of the men in bed to U.S. journalists, Alsop refuses to give in to the blackmail and goes to the authorities himself.

Auburn alters the time line on some of this and reveals the specifics in a Washington park-bench meeting between Joe and Andrei 14 years after the initial incident. Designed to wrap things up neatly, the scene comes across as too contrived and leads to a denouement that’s out of character for a man whose motto could have been “get mad….and get even.”

Before all this, however, we segue from the Moscow hotel to Alsop’s Georgetown home on the night of Kennedy’s inauguration in January, 1961. He’s organized a little party for the new President, and his wife Susan Mary Alsop (Kimberly Mellen), step daughter Abigail (Tyler Meredith), and brother Stewart (Coburn Goss, nicely played) are about to give up hope when, at the end of the scene, we see the lights of the motorcade flashing outside—solidifying Alsop’s influence throughout the administration until the assassination.

While Joe has a troubled relationship with his more liberal brother who dies of leukemia, and he maintains a parental soft spot for Abigail even after she becomes a hippie, his treatment of Susan Mary and the journalists who disagree with him is despicable. Having been upfront about his homosexuality with his wife when he married her as a matter of convenience and to have a hostess for his parties, he’s sexist and dismissive towards her, as well as clueless about her contributions to their lives. The confrontation in which she tries to explain that she thought her love could change his sexual orientation is heartbreaking, thanks to Mellen’s nuanced performance.

Alsop’s contempt for his fellow journalists, personified here by multiple award-winner David Halberstam (Ian Paul Custer), peaks during the Vietnam War when he accuses them of everything from ignorance of the situation to causing America’s losses by exposing South Vietnamese corruption. He even calls the New York Times editor to try to get them fired. As portrayed here, Halberstam—who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his war coverage–is angry but comparatively tolerant of his adversary and, in an act of generosity that’s become rare, protects his secrets.

Johnson’s blistering, acerbic, incredibly complicated performance is the glue that holds “The Columnist” together. I’ve rarely been as riveted by such an unlikeable, mean-spirited, mostly wrong-headed character. His loss of influence is well deserved—and yet it elicits a certain amount of sympathy.

The intimacy of the production helps. Joe Schermoly’s scenic design featuring a few marble columns is everything from the Georgetown house to a Vietnam bar with a few simple props and Jared Gooding’s lighting. Some of Christopher J. Neville’s costumes border on caricatures of the periods, but most are decent enough. As often is the case, I have quibbles with a few details. For example, the bottom sheet on the bed in the Moscow hotel room in 1954 is fitted, but the first fitted sheet wasn’t patented until 1959, and they weren’t in wide use until the 1990s.

Still, such trivia shouldn’t interfere with anyone’s appreciation of the show. It’s very well acted and offers a window into—or, for some, a reminder of—a time and people from whom we can learn.