It may be hard for today’s online news consumers to believe, but there was a day when newspaper columnists—certain newspaper columnists—were Masters of the Universe. The Political Universe anyway. The words of certain columnists were feared and followed. They had the ears of Very Important People, even those in the White House. Their words were actually translated into official actions in some cases.
That’s the history behind a fascinating new production by American Blues Theater, directed by Keira Fromm. The Columnist by David Auburn (author of Proof) is the story of Joseph Alsop, an outspoken and formidable columnist syndicated in hundreds of newspapers in the 1950s and ‘60s. He was also a closeted homosexual in an era when homosexuality was a criminal offense.
Philip Earl Johnson gives a terrific performance as Alsop, fully becoming the prissy, arrogant, opinionated Alsop. For years, the syndicated columns were by the Alsop brothers—Joe and his younger brother, Stewart (a solid performance by Coburn Goss). The brothers are part of the east coast elite, related to two presidents, schooled at Groton and Yale or Harvard. But Stewart left to work for the Saturday Evening Post and in the ‘60s, there’s a political rift between the brothers, caused by Joe’s passionate support for the war in Vietnam.
The Columnist opens and closes with Alsop’s meeting with Andrei (Christopher Sheard) a young Russian man whom he beds in a Moscow hotel room in act one and meets again on the Mall in Washington at the end. The Moscow assignation was filmed by the KGB, who tried to blackmail Alsop. Later the photos were circulated among Washington journalists, but Alsop’s sexuality was not generally public knowledge.
Late one night in January 1961, Joe is jubilant because of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. He believes Washington will be a new, vibrant city and that Kennedy will make the right decisions for the country. “He’s our man, Stewart. He’s like Stevenson with balls. Brains and balls, finally, in one package. And beauty. And charm. And he owes us.” (Joe’s columns had pushed the missile gap with Russia and Kennedy used it against Nixon in the campaign.) The evening is capped off with the new president’s arrival at Alsop’s home for a celebratory drink.
In 1961, Joe needed someone to sit “at the foot of his table” at his many parties. He marries the charming Susan Mary (Kymberly Mellen), who was aware of his sexual preferences and apparently didn’t mind. She has a teenaged daughter, Abigail (Tyler Meredith), for whom Joe becomes a stern but fond mentor. Abigail and Joe bond over her Latin lessons. Their scenes together are sweet, even at the end when she tells him she’s working against the war.
The Columnist refreshes us on the nature of the news media during the Kennedy and Johnson years. Joe was the foreign affairs expert of the Alsop brothers. He traveled often and went to Vietnam during the conflict. When Stewart goes to Vietnam on his own, he meets David Halberstam (Ian Paul Custer) in a seedy Saigon bar and finds out how his brother travels. “He doesn’t know the country,” Halberstam says. “He breezes over here for a week, stays at the embassy … gets an Army car and driver … has a helicopter at his disposal.”
Halberstam, one of the younger journalists covering Vietnam at the time, shows Joe’s latest column to Stewart. Joe blames reporters who criticize the U.S. and Vietnamese governments for changing the course of the war. And it was indeed war coverage by reporters who actually went into combat zones and saw the brutal reality of the war and U.S. incompetence, using standard warfare tactics in the jungles of Southeast Asia. (Joe Alsop tries to get Halberstam fired by his newspaper, the New York Times.)
Director Fromm manages the timing, set and scene changes adroitly. Her cast of six excellent actors makes the talky play come alive. Joe Schermoly’s set with marble-columned back wall converts easily from scene to scene with the movement of a few pieces of furniture or props. Christopher J. Neville’s costumes include wonderful 1960s crinolined full-skirted dresses for Susan Mary.
If you’re a political junkie, The Columnist is definitely the play for you. And if you’re interested in how politics and the news media worked 50 years ago—compared to today when the president accuses the news media of being “the enemy of the people” and publishing fake news—Auburn’s play will help you appreciate the contributions of the news media to our political culture. Those contributions have never been more important than they are today.
David Auburn was born in Chicago, raised in Ohio and Arkansas, and earned a B.A. in English at the University of Chicago. Proof, about a UofC mathematics professor and his daughter, won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play. The Columnist opened in New York in 2012, starring John Lithgow as Joseph Alsop.
The Columnist by American Blues Theater continues through April 1 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. The play runs 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $19-49 for performances Thursday-Sunday.