The Columnist Portrays the Life and Secrets of Journalist Joseph Alsop

The setup:

David Auburn garnered the 2001 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for his play Proof, and with The Columnist he now turns his attention to the widely-read columnist Joseph Alsop, who wrote for the Herald Tribune for decades until the mid-'70s, and whose column several times a week was greatly influential, making him one of the power brokers of Washington, D.C.

The execution:

Central to the narrative is the fact that Joe Alsop was a closeted homosexual, in an era, post 1950s, when homosexuality was still "the love that dare not speak its name", a phrase coined in a poem by Lord Alfred Douglas, lover to Oscar Wilde. With gay parades now blossoming on urban streets in June like dandelions after a spring shower, the newborn play (2012) enters the world already a period piece.

The narrative begins promisingly in a hotel room in Moscow in 1954, with Joe attempting to persuade a young male Russian, Andrei, to linger to repeat their sexual encounter. John Kaiser portrays Joe, in owlish black horn-rimmed glasses, and brings a courtly charm to the role. Adam Richardson plays Andrei and creates an air of credible integrity. The chemistry of supplicant and physical magnet is intriguing, but Andrei does not re-appear until near the end of Act II, so the scene sets up nothing, and the encounter could as well have been handled with exposition.

The play sketches the life of Joe Alsop in a series of vignettes - I almost wrote tableaux, for they are static and lifeless - occurring in the Georgetown home of Joe. We meet his younger brother and one-time journalistic collaborator Stewart Alsop (Reid Self) and Joe's fiancée and later wife, Susan Mary (Mykle McCoslin) and her teenage daughter Abigail (Emma Yarrow). Their interactions comprise the great bulk of the play, and we learn that Joe is a confidant of the great of the world, and a trusted adviser to JFK. And that Joe is vain, name-dropping, self-centered, waspish, and petty.

That an idol can have feet of clay is not much of a surprise, and some of the fault in the ensuing tedium, besides the writing, lies with Kaiser, who delivers his lines in a sing-song rhythm that lacks variety, so we see a sameness despite changing situations. The intellectual power of Alsop is trivialized, as Joe seems to have, in William Faulkner's famous phrase, all the "depth of stamped tin", so we never get a sense of real authority. Joe's second scene with Andrei, in 1968, at a park bench, stands out, since playwright Auburn here makes Joe a vicious, bitter queen, while Andrei now has a heart-of-gold. This scene, like their first, is unnecessary to the plot, but then there is no plot, just a narrative of events.

It would take great acting indeed to breathe life into this outline of a play, and what we have is good but not great. Self's portrayal of Stewart seems curiously tentative, as though such a successful journalist had no self-confidence. McCoslin brings a slender, elegant beauty to the role of Joe's wife, as well as personal charm, but fails to project her voice. Yarrow creates Abigail as an interesting and credible teenager, no small feat. And in a minor role, Scott McWhirter, as the journalist David Halberstam, anchors the play with vigor and strength.

There are references to attempts at Russian blackmail, and a key piece of information on how Joe handled this problem is withheld until close to the end, a much-too-frequent shabby trick by playwrights to create false suspense. And a scene where Joe's wife, who entered the marriage with open eyes - Joe had been explicit to her about his sexuality - seeks nonetheless a closer physical intimacy makes her, a high-powered Washington hostess, seem naïve.

Malinda L. Beckham directed, and she delivers what she can from a lean larder of writing. She also was responsible for the costuming, often excellent. The production is stylish and well-designed, and efficient moving platforms establish the Georgetown residence and work well, thanks to Beckham and Trevor Cone. John Baker handled lighting design, which was occasionally perplexing but generally fine.

The verdict:

Experienced actors portray the life of a once-famous columnist, but the play lacks drama and insights, and their valiant efforts create interest without generating involvement. The Columnist continues through March 15, Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. For information or ticketing, call 713-661-9505 or contact theatresouthwest.com.

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