One of the most inexplicable and unfortunate omissions from this year’s Tony Award nominations is David Auburn’s The Columnist, which definitely deserved to be put up for Best Play. In terms of both the writing and the overall production, it’s notably superior to two of the other nominees, Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park and Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, and is at least as satisfying in its own way as the other two, Rick Elice’s Peter and the Starcatcher and David Ives’s Venus in Fur.
The good news is that, even if the play itself has been given short shrift by the Tony nominators, star John Lithgow did receive a well deserved nod for what may well be his greatest performance ever in the role of Joseph Alsop, a real-life figure who attained and sustained great power and fame as a syndicated newspaper columnist from the 1930s through the ’70s.
Superbly well written by Auburn, best known as the author of Proof (which earned him both a Tony and the Pulitzer Prize), The Columnist is an intriguing tale of several years in Alsop’s life and career. Through the course of the play, his relationship with and attitude towards his readers is portrayed, as well as his relationships with and attitude towards those closest to him, including his wife, Susan (played by Margaret Colin); his stepdaughter (Mamie Gummer); his brother (Boyd Gaines); and fellow journalist David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken).
As depicted by Auburn, Alsop was quite a fascinating and complex figure. For example, while he self-identified as a conservative Republican, he was an early supporter of John F. Kennedy and became a close friend and adviser to Kennedy during his Presidency. Alsop also supported America’s involvement in Vietnam, which alienated many of his friends and colleagues.
On top of all that, Alsop was homosexual at a time when it was inconceivable for anyone in his position to be openly gay; his marriage to Susan was one of convenience, although it seems there was a great deal of affection was involved. One of the most interesting characters in The Columnist is Andrei (played with exceptional skill and talent by Brian J. Smith), a young Russian whom we first see in a post-coital discussion with Alsop in a hotel room in Moscow and who then disappears until the final scene.
Director Daniel Sullivan guides Lithgow and company with the surest of hands. John Lee Beatty’s sets, Jess Goldstein’s costumes, Kenneth Posner’s lighting and Rocco DiSanti’s projections add to the impact of one of the best new plays to come our way this season, on Broadway or off.