Monday, June 25, 2012



Manhattan Theatre Club presents...
By David Auburn
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
At MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre 
(261 West 47th Street)
Through Sunday, July 8

In a terrific performance, John Lithgow brings the legendary columnist Joseph Alsop to life in THE COLUMNIST. Stephen Kunken, as NYT Vietnam correspondent David Halberstam, and the rest of the supporting cast are terrific also. Daniel Sullivan – currently directing As You Like It for Shakespeare in the Park -- does an ingenious job of making this bio-play unfailingly interesting.

Following the generally available facts about Joseph Alsop reasonably closely, the play begins with an illicit homosexual one-afternoon-stand that Alsop had in Moscow, which led to an attempt by the KGB to blackmail Alsop – a fierce anti-communist. Alsop, however, deflected the attempt by letting the State Department, FBI and CIA know explicitly (the play suggests they already had a pretty good idea) that, yes, he had been having homosexual flings all over the world.

The play describes the extent to which Alsop was widely known throughout the country because of his widely distributed column, and the power he had in government because of his strong opinions and extensive readership.

Alsop (this background was not really described in the play) came from an important WASP family with ties to Roosevelt. Using his connections as leverage, Alsop developed extensive connections throughout the government, which he then used to start his column of insider national news.

Kind of bored with Eisenhower, Alsop welcomed Kennedy’s election, and the play describes Alsop’s love of Kennedy, and the extent to which he was grieved, and almost unhinged by Kennedy’s death. After Johnson became President, Alsop became a fierce advocate of the Vietnam war.

The play is told essentially from Alsop’s point of view. The anger that opponents of the war in Vietnam felt toward Alsop, and indeed the whole cultural change that came in the late 1960’s, to which Alsop was out of tune, is alluded to in the play, but is seen in the play from his and not their point of view. Then it is filtered through Lithgow’s sympathetic demeanor, so the play tamps down the fierce anti-Alsop emotions of the time almost completely.

In the first act it is surprising that the high drama of the KGB attempting to blackmail Alsop, and Alsop deflecting it, happens almost entirely offstage, only alluded to but never shown.

Indeed, much of the first act is essentially exposition describing Alsop’s place in the world, and the excitement of Kennedy’s inauguration and then the tragedy of his assassination – as seen through the eyes of Alsop. It is very affecting. It is powerfully evocative for those old enough to have lived through it, and illuminating for those who are too young.

In the second act, Alsop’s attempts at a marriage and at raising a step-child are the focus, as well as his becoming increasingly out-of-touch with a changing world. And here, the drama (all from Alsop’s point of view) is so active and Lithgow so emotional that he becomes almost beet-red faced and apoplectic.

THE COLUMNIST is running only through July 7, and it is worth seeing… for Lithgow’s skillful performance, as well as for a look back at a very important man at a very important time, and a view of that time from this man’s unique perspective.

(By the way, the Manhattan Theater Club has a very pleasant theater, with a fine lounge at the lower level.)

To put the events of the play in context, here are some dates:

1910 – Joseph Alsop is born (Oct 10)
1928 – Alsop graduates from Groton School
1932 – Alsop graduates from Harvard
1933 – President Roosevelt (D) takes office
1934 – Alsop reports on the Bruno Hauptmann trial for the Saturday Evening Post
1938 – Alsop publishes a book: "The 168 Days" about the attempt by Roosevelt to enlarge the Supreme Court
1941 – Alsop enlists in the Navy and becomes Staff Historian to the Flying Tigers
1941 – Alsop is captured by the Japanese, but repatriated soon after
1945 – President Truman (D) takes office
1945 – Alsop begins a column called “Matter of Fact” with his brother Stewart
1953 – President Eisenhower (R) takes office
1958 – Stewart resigns and Josph Alsop becomes sole author of “Matter of Fact
1961 – President Kennedy (D) takes office
1963 – President Johnson (D) takes office
1969 – President Nixon (R) takes office
1974 – President Ford (R) takes office
1974 – Alsop retires
1974 – Stewart Alsop dies of leukemia
1977 – President Carter (D) takes office
1981 – President Reagan (R) takes office
1989 – President Bush (R) takes office
1989 – Joseph Alsop dies (Aug 28)

Here are some links and more notes on Joseph Alsop and the play:








THE COLUMNIST by David Auburn, directed by Daniel Sullivan, at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street) through Sunday, July 8, with John Lithgow, Margaret Colin, Boyd Gaines, Stephen Kunken, Marc Bonan, Grace Gummer, and Brian J. Smith .

Columnists are kings in midcentury America and Joseph Alsop wears the crown. Joe is beloved, feared and courted in equal measure by the Washington political world at whose center he sits. But as the ’60s dawn and America undergoes dizzying change, the intense political drama Joe is embroiled in becomes deeply personal as well.

David Auburn, author of the whose Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning returns to MTC with this fascinating new work to be directed by his Proof collaborator Daniel Sullivan.

The creative team for THE COLUMNIST includes John Lee Beatty (scenic design), Jess Goldstein (costume design), Kenneth Posner (lighting design), John Gromada (original music & sound design), Rocco DiSanti (projection design), Charles G. LaPointe (hair & wig design), and David Caparelliotis (casting).

THE COLUMNIST was developed with the support of Tennessee Repertory Theatre through its Ingram New Works Fellowship and Residency.


Tickets for THE COLUMNIST are available by calling Telecharge at
Phone: 212-239-6200, 

online by visiting

or by visiting the
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre Box Office 
(261 West 47th Street).

Ticket prices are $67 – $121.


Please note, THE COLUMNIST is dark on Mondays.
Please note, there will be no performance on Wednesday, July 4.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 PM,
Thursday through Saturday at 8 PM.
Matinees on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2 PM.

Monday and Tuesday at 7 PM,
Thursday through Saturday at 8 PM.
Matinees on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2 PM.

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