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.