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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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Mr & Mrs Fitch – Review

Mr. & Mrs. Fitch at the Second Stage Theatre is a rollicking good time and should be treated as such. John Lithgow and Jenifer Ehle, in the title roles are directed by Scott Ellis to absolute symphonic perfection. They are utterly delicious to watch on an astounding set by Allen Moyer. This new play by Douglas Carter Beane (Little Doug Laughed) is going to be an audience favorite despite its deep flaws. The dialogue is witty and fast paced and at times quite clever. No critique, mine or others changes that fact. But oh, the flaws.

Mr. & Mrs. Fitch live in a 2,000 square foot duplex loft in a desirable section of Manhattan. Presumably they do so on Mr. Fitch’s salary as a gossip columnist. The play takes place today; twitter, blogging and prominent MacBooks confirm this fact. Yet, the costumes are out of a Noel Coward play. They are gorgeous, but as incongruent as the scathing epitaphs Mr. Fitch hurls at Mrs. Fitch, seemingly out of the blue. This appears to be an homage to Albee’s Virginia Woolf, but they are just disturbing coming from the mouth of an otherwise pleasing fellow. This fellow, we are told, prefers men, yet Mrs. Fitch makes scathing witticisms about bisexuals (bi now, gay later) and not to offend her husband. Mr. Fitch’s boss, presumably a newspaper editor, calls him in the middle of the night and leaves the most outrageous message on his answering machine. It is difficult to believe that someone in the news business would be so obtuse as to leave a permanent record of berating homosexual slurs slung at an employee.

Mr. Fitch has a novel within him and disdain for his day job. Mr. & Mrs. Fitch go to parties with people they hate and scurry back home to type out a column in five minutes. The plot, as it were, then centers around the fact that they create a celebrity, a la A Face in the Crowd. Why they do this and what they hope to gain from it, is not entirely clear, but it makes for interesting comments.

We discover that Mrs. Fitch, the more fast paced witty raconteur, is from New Jersey and attended public school. Apparently, this is code for “wrong side of the tracks.” There are moments when this word smith is turned into Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. She attributes fine chocolates, watches and neutrality to the Swedes, and makes obvious errors about Edgar Lee Masters. What’s even more appalling, is the scene (written for laughs) in which she uses the Joy of Cooking to figure out how to crack an egg, and must find the printed instructions for the stove? Who IS this woman? She was raised in New Jersey, clearly not with a silver spoon, does not work, has no household help (we know this because there is clutter in the house) but can not crack an egg? Weren’t we subjected to this display in Adam’s Rib? The incongruity spills into the dialogue too as Mr. Beane seems uncomfortable trusting the audience. He is most comfortable with witty
repartee or turns of phrase, and most uncomfortable putting voice to intellectualism. It is not clear whether he simply does not have a grasp on the lofty content, or a grasp on how to deliver it (my money is on the former.) There are clumsy redundant explanatory lines such as “He was with his excruciatingly young Nabokovian lover” that are cringe inducing. There is a rather desperate Sarah Palin joke as well (why not stamp an expiration date on the play?)

Both acts are interrupted by travel monologues, first she, then he. They move nothing in the story, and bring the real strength of the play (their tennis match of words) to a screeching halt. The set, though ravishing and a decorator’s dream of balance and color, left a few questions in my mind. Would the Fitches who have nothing but disdain for the common, really have Wally Lamb books? Would there be a copy of the Yiddish Policemen’s Union on the table? I found the fact that I had the same books and ideas as the Fitches mildly disconcerting. Mr. Beane should have tried harder to align the characters he was creating with what he knew to be true.

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2011 in Theatre

 

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