Once upon a time, print journalism was not the unsettled thing it is now. Hundred of newspapers thrived, often two dailies even in a relatively small market. And journalists were powerful men. (I say "men" consciously; in the mid-20th century women were not widely a part of the newspaper scene, except as secretaries and maybe a gossip columnist or two.)
Joseph Alsop was one such powerful journalist. But as portrayed in David Auburn's play, "The Columnist," which opened at Live Theatre Workshop last weekend, he also was an arrogant SOB. He was connected. He had friends in high places. He was a Washington insider when that term wasn't derogatory. In spite of his conservatism, he was delighted when Jack Kennedy was elected president, and claimed that he had had, through his column and his influence, a significant impact on getting him elected, which was indeed probably the case.
But in the years following Kennedy's assassination, the cold war was heating up and American society was starting to roll, unstoppably, downhill into the cultural clashes of the 1960s and 1970s, with particularly the issue of the U.S.'s involvement in Vietnam, causing a major divide in the American public. Alsop found himself on the wrong side of the issue in the journalism world. He was anti-communist, anti-Soviet Union and pro-commie-killing, feeling that the fatality-laden intervention of young American draftees was absolutely justified and necessary.
He certainly makes for an interesting and complex character for Keith Wick to portray in this production. But since he is such an arrogant prig, it's very hard to like him, to find him sympathetic enough to really care about him. That creates one of the biggest stumbling blocks to embracing this production, and there are several more—some arising from the production and some embedded in the play itself.
There's a disjointed feeling as the story unfolds, and we are not quite certain what point Auburn wants to make. What is the conflict that moves the story? Where are we being lead? And why? Frankly, it's just not clear. The growing conflict about the Vietnam War is there, as is the issue of the photos the KGB had of a sexual dalliance Alsop had with a young man in Moscow, photos that perhaps could be used to threaten him. But those threats really doesn't constitute enough of a conflict or issue to drive the play—or Alsop, for that matter. We see a bit of the troubles Alsop's marriage of convenience to Susan Mary Alsop (Carrie Hill.) But that thread seems underdeveloped as well. None of these issues is given enough focus to give us a story with impact. Intellectually, we can see that Alsop's position of power is being eaten away by changing times, and that he has either alienated or lost people he has loved, but we don't really feel it, or feel for him.
Perhaps part of the problem is that director Rhonda Hallquist has the story barreling down the track like a runaway train, and whatever emotionally might be tugging at Alsop--which because of who he is would be very nuanced--we don't really have a chance to see. Consequently, the play becomes more biography than satisfying theater. In fact, so indirect and lacking focus is the storytelling that we don't recognize when the play is over.
Wick, a very good actor, invests generously in his characterization of Alsop. But we rarely see a vulnerable side, or enough of one to have real empathy for him. Hill, also a good actor, seems a bit unsure as his wife, but the role is rather awkwardly written. Stephen Frankenfield plays Alsop's brother Stewart, who is also a journalist and former collaborator with Joe, although of a very different temperament. Steve Wood plays younger journalist David Halberstam, an up-and-comer who argued vehemently against the American presence in Vietnam and that Joe Alsop's kind were on the way out.
It's possible that most of the inadequacies of this production arise from those of the play. We are intrigued, but whatever kind of engagement we have with Alsop is from a distance. That makes for a piece of theater that may graze our interest but never penetrates the desire for our full—and fulfilling—investment in the show. "The Columnist"