Friday, June 08, 2012

"The Columnist"

If you're a fan of "Mad Men" there's a better than even chance that you will also enjoy "The Columnist," a new play by David Auburn ("Proof"), currently playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in a Manhattan Theatre Club production helmed by Daniel Sullivan.  Like the adventures of Don Draper airing Sunday nights on AMC, "The Columnist" takes place (primarily) in the early 60s and chronicles a world in the midst of a rather epic transition.  (Not unlike another recent favorite of mine, "War Horse.")

The columnist of the title is Joseph Alsop, the mega-powerful Washington insider whose clout is suddenly diminishing as his syndicated column is finding fewer and fewer readers.  The world is changing and Alsop is having trouble keeping up.  A staunch defender of the war in Vietnam, Alsop finds himself on the wrong side of history and his desperate attempts to claw his way back to the top are the fodder for Auburn's slick drama.

In John Lee Beatty's brilliant sets, we see Alsop at his most vulnerable - pleading on the phone for favors with other Washington power brokers, trying to convince his brother Stewart (also a writer, delicately played by Boyd Gaines) to partner with him and, most important, trying to keep his closet door firmly shut.  For, as we learn in the very first scene, in a Moscow hotel room in 1954, Alsop is gay, and the impossibility of his ever coming out - balanced against the very real threat of his being outed, thanks to the existence of some surreptitiously-acquired explicit photos - keeps the tension up throughout the evening.

In addition to Auburn's excellent play and Sullivan's confident direction, "The Columnist" benefits greatly from another bravura performance by John Lithgow, who once again proves why he's one of Broadway's best.  If you're used to Lithgow's comedic roles (primarily TV's "Third Rock from the Sun"), you owe it to yourself to see him dig into a great dramatic turn such as this.  It would be hard to play Alsop without the level of bristling intelligence Lithgow brings to the role.  But it's more than his bravura and brilliance that make Lithgow great, it's also his ability to show vulnerability and doubt - not always easy for a 6'4" man to do.  It's the soft center that makes the bristly exterior interesting.

"The Columnist" occasionally feels "out of tune" - but thanks to the great team MTC put together for this production, not to mention the fascinating historical tale it weaves, "The Columnist" is a winner.

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