John Lithgow is a chameleon who can play anything from a TV serial killer (“Dexter”) to a charming con in a Broadway musical (“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”). In “The Columnist,” the new bio-drama by David Auburn (“Proof”), he does a brilliant job with Joseph Alsop, the Washington political pundit who wielded immense power through his syndicated newspaper column. Supported by a solid cast, Lithgow finds the humanity in this irascible, obsessive and quite unlikable demigod. But neither he nor helmer Daniel Sullivan can do the impossible: manufacture a play out of the scattered events of Auburn’s well-articulated but loosely structured scenes.
A well-born WASP with top-drawer social connections (to the Roosevelts, no less) and a cultivated taste for fine art, Alsop cut a far more impressive figure than the braying media asses who currently dominate the political scene. But between his fanatical enthusiasm for the Vietnam War and his rabid attacks on his political “enemies,” he was no less dangerous.
A dapper dresser, Alsop maintained his air of superiority by adopting an exquisite if eccentric sense of style. Costumer Jess Goldstein has supplied the elegant suits, silk bow ties, cigarette holder and owlish eyeglasses. Lithgow wears this sartorial splendor as the emotional straitjacket it is, an insight he conveys with his ramrod-stiff posture and the tight little purse he makes of his mouth.
As a closeted homosexual hiding behind a friendly marriage of convenience to a kind woman (played with sensitivity by Margaret Colin), Alsop was indeed repressed. And as much as the play can be said to have a dramatic crisis, it’s the situation he gets into on a trip to Moscow, when the KGB sets him up with an attractive young man (a scene played with a measure of grace by Lithgow and Brian J. Smith) and secretly photographs the encounter.
Instead of using this crisis as his dramatic engine, Auburn lets it hover over the play, never quite integrated into other events. Lacking a clear plot focus, the play thus remains a series of episodic scenes, all efficiently staged on John Lee Beatty’s extremely well-dressed set interiors. Some of them are quite gripping — but still feel random.
The scenes that Lithgow plays with Boyd Gaines, as Alsop’s brother and onetime writing partner, Stewart, have heart. Unlike Alsop, Stewart never became consumed by his political passions, and his concern for his progressively fanatical brother is quite moving.
As the play goes on, with Alsop increasingly eaten alive by his obsessions, he perversely becomes more intractable in his political beliefs about the righteousness of the war in Vietnam and the dangers of communism. At this point, Lithgow is playing him like the fabled lion with a thorn in his paw. Unable to make peace with changing political realities and unwilling to accept the new standards of journalism — represented by young turks like David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken) — he can only roar in frustration and make life miserable for his wife, his brother and the stepdaughter (played with girlish spirit by Grace Gummer) he adores.
After becoming irrelevant, Alsop did not go gentle into that good night. But Lithgow makes sure that this wounded beast goes out with a bit of dignity.