On the very day I caught the American Blues Theater production of David Auburn’s play “The Columnist” — a fictionalized portrait of Joseph Alsop, the powerful mid-20th century American newspaper reporter and widely syndicated columnist — President Donald Trump, who has engaged in an unusually fraught relationship with the press, announced he will not be attending the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in April. So it was impossible not to wonder how Alsop, fabled for his cozy (if not entirely uncontentious) relationships with presidents ranging from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, might respond to that news.
To be sure, Alsop (1910-1989) practiced his profession at a radically different moment in media history. In the play’s opening scene — which unfolds in a Moscow hotel room in 1954, just after he has engaged in a gay tryst with a young Soviet tour guide, Andrei (a fine turn by Christopher Sheard) — the two men chat about the press in their respective countries. And when Alsop notes he is syndicated in 190 newspapers nationwide, and that there are five or six newspapers in every big city in the United States, Andrei is astonished. The Chicago audience, among the rare inhabitants of a 21st century American city with two major daily papers, laughed knowingly (and perhaps wistfully) about that time when newspapers were a hot property and the concept of Facebook clicks was still far in the future.
Alsop (Philip Earl Johnson, who brings fire and ice and intense volatility to a marathon role) was a power player during much of that bygone era. And Auburn’s play (which debuted in 2012), quickly jumps from that KGB-staged incident in Moscow, which would haunt Alsop for the rest of his life, to his home in Georgetown in January 1961, at the very moment Kennedy was inaugurated as president. A friend and confidante to the charismatic new leader, Alsop sensed he was now sitting in the proverbial catbird’s seat as he and his new “wife of convenience and friendship,” Susan Mary Alsop (superbly played by Kymberly Mellen, an actress of ideal emotional tuning), were at the center of Washington’s social whirl at a time when getting close to the subject of one’s columns was seen as an advantage.
When: Through April 1
Where: American Blues Theater at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont
A conservative on most matters, particularly the Cold War era policy of the containment of Communism, Alsop had Kennedy’s ear, and urged him to pursue the war in Vietnam. (Auburn even lets the columnist take credit for coining the term “the Domino Theory,” which posited that the loss of Vietnam to the Communists would mean the loss of all of Southeast Asia, though some might argue about the origin of that term.)
By the end of 1963 Kennedy was dead (how the news of his assassination reaches Alsop feels rather awkward), and Johnson was a less collegial figure. More crucially, the revolutionary social changes of the decade that fully disgusted Alsop were well underway, leaving him out of touch while still in middle age. He clashed head-on with younger reporters like David Halberstam (Ian Paul Custer), who homed in on the corruption of the South Vietnamese government and the loss of American lives, and branded them immature rebels and hippies. By 1968, a year of tumultuous protests in the capital, he seemed like something of a dinosaur.
Alsop’s workaholic nature and sexually (if not emotionally) suppressed nature is deftly limned here, with Auburn supplying nuanced scenes suggesting the columnist’s closest personal relationships. This includes his loving younger brother, the more balanced Stewart (Coburn Goss in a performance of immense natural charm and tenderness), who was Joseph’s journalistic collaborator during a crucial period, and also extends to his teenage stepdaughter, Abigail (the lively Tyler Meredith), a true child of the ’60s. Things were far more complicated with his wife, an exuberant hostess with brains and charm, and in a notably blistering scene Alsop punctures any illusion she may have entertained about being able to convert his sexual nature.
Director Keira Fromm has cast the show impeccably and overseen just the right chemistry among its characters. But she can’t quite disguise the way Auburn has drawn the 1960s with the broadest of elementary textbook strokes, or how the play’s final scene (which should not be divulged here) feels too much like pure invention in the service of a dramatic full-circle ending.
Set designer Joe Schermoly’s frame of white marble columns easily suggests the luxe private life and formal public sphere in which Alsop operated. And of course the inimitable storm generated by fingers jabbing at typewriter keys has a music all its own.