Crisp, cultivated, corrosive Joe Alsop (John Lithgow), one of the great “access journalists” of mid-century Washington, was more than a pundit: He was a true kingmaker (not like the bantamweight blatherers strutting on cable and op-ed pages today), and he had the ear of presidents, especially Democratic ones. His not-so-secret — in fact, nationally syndicated — agenda was to butch them up on foreign policy, to trumpet “missile gaps” and Domino Theories, and generally make sure the New Dealers of the Mommy Party were perceived as more rabidly anticommunist than their Republican rivals. To this end, Alsop helped cajole and bully first John Kennedy, then Lyndon Johnson, deeper and deeper into the Vietnam War. Did this shoot-first-ask-questions-never attitude have anything to do with his carefully concealed (yet widely whispered-about) homosexuality? Or with KGB threats to publish evidence of his “degeneracy”? Or just his unshakably aristocratic worldview? (“We don’t give two shits what they want to read! We tell them what they need to know!”) In The Columnist, playwright David Auburn engages these questions ever so gingerly, ultimately giving Alsop a bit too wide a berth. He wants the man wreathed in mystery — a great dying-WASP tragedy — but he also wants to convey a Britannica’s worth of specific didja-know historical info: The dialogue is smart and sharp enough, but The Columnist, in toto, feels both didactically chalky and oddly evasive.
Here, Auburn’s script (along with Daniel Sullivan’s direction) defers shyly to the tooth-rattling Lithgow, perhaps a bit too good a fit for the role. He’s technically excellent, yet he shows us nothing surprising or particularly illuminating about the half-forgotten monster he’s embodying. Playing a man whose reports from the “front” were nothing but dispatches from the back room, where he helped the old-boys network put the best spin on a very bad war, Lithgow powerfully communicates Alsop’s towering sense of privilege and accompanying sense of noblesse oblige, as well as some affecting moments of quavering vulnerability, eruptions of the underlying terrors (exposure, irrelevance, ennui) that drove him. But we don’t necessarily see the connection between these two poles — the key to the character, in my opinion, and perhaps also the key to understanding that recurrent bugbear called “neoconservatism,” which we dismiss at our peril. (Think Alsop’s dead? Ask Miller, Kristol, Kristof, Friedman, Sullivan … none has had the president’s ear for long, but each has had it for an afternoon or so, and sometimes that’s enough to do a great deal of good or a great deal of damage.) Alsop’s chief antagonists here are his brother Stewart (stolid Boyd Gaines) and his hippie stepdaughter (Grace Gummer) — he never meets his fiercest critic, young Times correspondent David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken) face to face — but none of them puts a dent in his facade. Lithgow has more meaningful dialogues with the antiques in Alsop’s study. Auburn is simply too gentle to dislodge him from history, to pry him out and drag him down into the pit with us, so we plebes can get a better look. In the end, ol’ Joe gets a pass. Story of his life.
The Columnist is playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.