“The Columnist,” which opened tonight, examines the life of political writer Joseph Alsop (John Lithgow) who held court among the elite of Washington, D.C., in the 1960s. Revered and feared, Alsop used his syndicated column to chronicle and opine upon the quickly changing nation, from its global position to the intimacies of the White House.
While “Mad Men” offers an intuitive, urbane outlook on America’s mid-century shift, this show lifts its nose to sniff out how those at the top are the farthest out of touch with it (a theme that’s relevant today). For the most part, it subtly traces the underpinnings of that era – one in which a man confident enough to tell others exactly what to think could become both a pillar and pariah in the space of the same decade. Then again, it sometimes veers toward heavy-handedness; for example, take Alsop’s pas de deux with teen daughter Abigail (Grace Gummer), a rote representative of the rising youth movement who undermines his authority with short skirts, long hair and concern for the proletariat.
Lithgow’s Alsop is an unyielding man who is universally popular on paper yet lacks lovers or friends. He has the president’s direct line, but keeps at bay his own business partner-cum-brother (Boyd Gaines). And then there’s the woman he marries (Margaret Colin) to be the missing set-piece in his stiffly appointed home – well that, and so the world won’t know he’s gay (this is overt but unutterable, getting no further than “I’m … ” and “He’s like us,” which is important in a play about the strength of words). If Alsop speaks to those dearest to him with either too much calculation or too little concern, how can they take it personally? The internal and external pressures he both places and perceives upon himself would keep any man uptight – yet also, through it all, upright. Ultimately, David Auburn’s portrait of this flawed titan is as much a fluid puzzle as the pinwheel set that smacks positively of scenic designer John Lee Beatty and director Daniel Sullivan. It moves unbidden around Alsop as does the world at large, a fact that he’s forced to reconcile throughout “The Columnist.”
Through June 24
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th Street