John Lithgow in The Columnist
(© Joan Marcus)
John Lithgow in The Columnist
(© Joan Marcus)
In The Columnist, now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre under Daniel Sullivan's suave direction, David Auburn fiddles with the facts of influential Washington, D. C. newspaper scribe Joseph Alsop's life. While these imagined facts severely compromise his dramatic purposes, Auburn nonetheless supplies the always remarkable John Lithgow with the opportunity to present a penetrating character study in the title role.

Auburn cleverly starts his backward glance at Alsop, whose printed and private words swayed John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson on handling the Vietnam War, in a Moscow hotel room where he is concluding a 1954 sexual liaison with a supposed pick-up named Andrei (Brian J. Smith). Once the young man leaves, though, KGB operatives knock at the door.

The play then quickly cuts to Kennedy's inauguration night in 1961, when the rest of the play's major characters fill up Alsop's surroundings (just one element of John Lee Beatty's excellent shifting sets). They include Alsop's brother and former co-columnist Stewart (Boyd Gaines), his fiancee Susan Mary (Margaret Colin), and her teenaged daughter Abigail (Grace Gummer).

As the work progresses over the better part of a decade, New York Times reporter David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken) also shows up as a major player. He's reporting the United States Vietnam involvement as a losing cause, while Alsop adamantly feeds the Administration his opposing convictions.

Lithgow does a bang-up job of illustrating Alsop's Groton/Harvard-honed intelligence, his cultivated semi-British accent, and his impatience with others who disagree with him or simply interrupt him at his typewriter - which acts as his emotional shield.

While most everyone around him (and perhaps in Washington) is aware of Joe's sexual proclivities -- while tacitly ignoring them -- the so-called secret enhances the portrait of a man slowly but inexorably weighed down by his arrogance and fear.

In one hard-hitting sequence, Alsop and Susan Mary confront each other about their sexless union after years of skirting the issue. In another, Stewart faces off with Halberstam over who might be circulating the possibly incriminating photographs of Joe and his Russian companion. The first-rate work of Colin, Gaines, and Kunken help bring all of this to stirring life.

In addition, a number of Auburn's scenes bring home his larger point that there was a time when columnists had the kind of political clout no longer possible in today's blogosphere.

But the play runs into trouble towards the very end when Joe runs into a Russian attache on a park bench in a meeting which echoes the initial Moscow episode. It feels unbelievably fictional, and -- along with some of Auburn's other factual discrepancies presented here -- diminishes much of what has come before.

True, Shakespeare played fast and loose as he made his case against the abuses of power, but one can't help feeling that Auburn hasn't earned the right to do the same with such recent history.