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The Columnist – Review

The Columnist, by David Auburn, is based upon the true story of Joseph Aslop.  The play, directed with breathtaking precision by Daniel Sullivan, spans approximately fifteen years (1954 – late 1960s.)  The storyline is tightly woven into the time periods.  We experience the cold war, the Kennedy administration and; (the elephant in the room) the Vietnam War.

There is a reason this period of time is often used as a backdrop; it is simply riveting.  Movies and television have played with the cultural and political extremes of the period.  There’s no “playing” in The Columnist.  This is a true story.  There seems to be many plays about real people that are little more than monologues impassionedly delivered to the balcony.  This is not one of those.  This is a well-crafted story with three-dimensional characters.  The play works so solidly that you needn’t know the people were real.  (Clearly many in the audience had no framework for “real” as the murmuring explanations of the Kennedy assassination would indicate.  Really?  How many times did the actors declare it was November 1963?!  What are they teaching in high school?)

John Lithgow is Joseph, perhaps it’s more accurate to write that “he plays Joseph” but to this viewer he was Joseph.  Mr. Lithgow is entirely comfortable in the skin of a man not entirely comfortable in his own skin.  Joseph is a popular columnist (syndicated in 190 newspapers – are there still 190 newspapers in this country?)  He is well-educated and talented conservative columnist with the ears of the nation’s leaders.  He also prefers the company of men, leading to a blackmailing incident that is a bit of a thread throughout the play.  Joseph does marry; a lovely widow and perfect hostess for his many parties; Susan (the dreamy Margaret Colin.)  Ms. Colin is almost unrecognizable as Susan, not physically; she’s as beautiful as ever.  She is every inch the Susan as Mr. Lithgow is Joseph.  Their family unit is rounded off by Joseph’s brother Stewart (Boyd Gaines) and Susan’s daughter Abigail (Grace Gummer.)

Mr. Gaines has a wonderful role in Stewart.  His interactions with David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken) allow us to see the wheels turning and the guards shifting.  Stewart, unlike his brother, relishes intimate connections.  (We suspect Joseph hosts Robert McNamara and Westmoreland partly to avoid personal dinner table chitchat.)  It is on Mr. Gaines’ face and in his posture that we see the weight of life’s events.  Ms. Gummer on the other hand becomes lighter and freer as she grows into a turbulent time.  She (brilliantly) evolves from a child to a woman.  Her relationship with Joseph creates some of the more joyous moments of the play.

There is a school of thought that cautions that it’s never good news for a play when it’s the set that is mentioned.  Rubbish.  The dramatic seamless transitions of time and space are intricately linked to the magic of John Lee Beatty.  “Seamless” is the operative term as so many shows introduce their lumbering sets with the sound of pulleys, wheels or grunting stagehands.  The Columnist set is brilliantly used to support the play and the actors.  The same is true for Rocco Disanti’s projection design.  A favorite moment is when the overhead typed words melted into falling snowflakes.

The Columnist is perfectly performed and produced (by Manhattan Theatre Club) and is a breath of fresh air in the “true politics and figures as characters” category of theatre.  The story is compelling and the tempo never falters.  The play does not however pack much of an emotional wallop.  There is a moment, delivered without any sentimentality by Ms. Gummer that creates a bit of a lump in the throat, reminding us of this absence.

The Columnist is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre until June 24th.

 
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Posted by on May 9, 2012 in Theatre

 

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Time Stands Still – Review

At the very heart of Time Stands Still is the tension between two primary human relationships; that which we have with the world and that which we have with our primary partner.  The thought, and emotion provoking play by Donald Marguiles (Brooklyn Boy, Dinner with Friends) is directed by Daniel Sullivan (Proof, The Homecoming) and playing at the lovely Cort Theatre.  This four character Manhattan Theatre Club production moved to Broadway with only one change in cast, Christina Ricci for Alicia Silverstone.

The play, set entirely in a decidedly not posh Williamsburg Brooklyn loft, is the story of two couples.  It is a tight, lovely, moving and solid play that can only be called a(cringe inducing) “grown-up” play.  Perhaps I am attaching this moniker after seeing several productions focused on the angst of twenty somethings?  More likely it is due to the very adult subject matter.  How does one reconcile one’s place in the world with one’s sense of self?  The primary couple, James (Brian d’Arcy James) and Sarah (Laura Linney) have just returned from Iraq, she with intense physical scars, and he with equally intense psychological scars.  James is a freelance journalist and Sarah and acclaimed photographer employed by an acclaimed magazine.  The other couple in the mix is Sarah’s editor (and former torch carrying paramour) Richard (Eric Bogosian) and his new very young girlfriend Mandy (Christina Ricci.)  The central story is how James and Sarah will now move forward.  The layers of these four characters are fascinating and are teased out with fine directing nuance.  If I had any complaint it was that Brian d’Arcy James seemed to be a bit restrained in his performance.  I was left wondering if Mr. Sullivan intentionally designed the production in this manner so as to allow for Ms. Linney more of a spotlight, or if in fact he was being very faithful to the script.  All four characters go through palpable metamorphoses.  It is a testament to the actors that I wanted to pummel their characters with questions to tease out  more about their motivations.  How much of Sarah’s life choices are predicated on her trust fund?  Would she be so quick to do the work she does if she wasn’t supported by someone for which she has utter disdain?  And what of James’ spiral into his new world of fear (which is demonstrated just a bit heavy handedly by the former war reporter now wearing a bicycle helmet.)  Is James’ fear now as much as a fulcrum as Sarah’s money is for her?  Richard and Mandy deserve a spin-off play of their own, so too are their lives mesmerizing.  We watch their relationship evolve into a solid celebration of positivity while the mature relationship (they’ve been together 8 1/2 years) of Sarah and James can not survive in the lightness.  To my delight, Marguiles presents the dark side as an affect of immaturity.  There is a lovely moment when Mandy explains how utterly childish it is to wrap oneself in angst and despair.

The performances of all four of these actors are simply magnificent.  Ms Ricci plays younger quite convincingly and has a graceful and solid stage presence.  Mr. Bogosian seems at home both on the stage and in the Brooklyn loft.  Mr. James and Ms. Linney are beautiful together and apart.  This is an incredibly thought provoking play, that also includes some laughs (on of them quite cheap, but I’m in a forgiving mood.)  I am not sure if it will speak to every age group, but if you can see 30 ahead or can remember 55, this play will resonate deeply.  The final scene is quietly powerful and quite beautiful, causing a large lump in my throat.

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2011 in Theatre

 

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