Chicago Theatre Review
The Columnist – American Blues Theatre
This Spring, the talent of Chicago-born playwright and screenwriter David Auburn, a Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winner for his drama “Proof,” is being represented in his hometown by his follow up play. In this 2012 biographic drama, based on the life of internationally influential newspaper columnist Joseph Alsop, this poignant play focuses on a man whose personal life was as fascinating at his political writing.
First presented at Broadway’s Manhattan Theatre Club, the play starred John Lithgow and was directed by Daniel Sullivan. American Blues Theater’s very respectable production, guided by Jeff nominated director Keira Fromm, stars Philip Earl Johnson (“A Christmas Story,” “The Big Meal”) in his auspicious debut with this company. As Alsop, the role is all-consuming and seldom allows the actor a moment to relax or drop his persona. He dominates every scene. More than that, this talented actor opens this drama at his most vulnerable, and certainly the most exposed Joseph Alsop will ever be during the next two hours.
Alsop is naked, lying in a Russian hotel room, discreetly covered by the corner of a bed sheet. He’s just enjoyed a sexual tryst with Andrei, a charming, handsome young hustler (played with skill and confidence by Christopher Sheard). In this first scene we learn a great deal about the powerful columnist who, as we later witness, is capable of reducing stronger men to putty.
Alsop is a closeted, middle-age gay man, who’s genuinely surprised to discover that this young man wasn’t forced to spend the afternoon with him, but chose to do so. In this opening scene, Joseph displays an uncharacteristic warmth and vulnerability that we won’t view again for the remainder of the play. He confesses that he’s never felt attractive or desirable. Alsop also confesses his unbridled enthusiasm for the Washington political scene, as well as a disdain for the Soviets. As it turns out, however, this private moment was secretly photographed by the KGB and Joseph Alsop will suffer scandal and attempted blackmail for the rest of his life.
Flash ahead from Moscow in 1954 to Washington D.C. during the turbulent 60’s. Always hovering near his typewriter, Alsop is continually at work on a new column. His younger brother, Stewart, played with empathy and dedication by the terrific Coburn Goss, has been Joseph’s writing partner for years; but now he’s writing for the Saturday Evening Post, much to the chagrin of the elder Mr. Alsop.
Joseph’s longtime companion, consummate celebrated political hostess and soon-to-be wife, Susan Mary, is played by the effervescent Kymberly Mellen. Costumed and coiffed by Christopher J. Neville, Ms. Mellen seems to be channeling Jane Wyatt’s Margaret Anderson of “Father Knows Best,” with her brave smile and always stylish manner. Susan Mary evenually weds this fascinating journalist, knowing full well that he’s a professed homosexual, but thinking that, given some time, she’ll be able to change him. The marriage, like much of Joseph Alsop’s life, eventually crumbles apart.
The best moments in the columnist’s illustrious life, aside from his friendship and association with the likes of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and other important luminaries, are the times spent with Abigail, his teenage stepdaughter. Played, at first, with teenage angst, followed by a maturity that comes with a college education and finally as a young woman who understands more than she lets on, Tyler Meredith is excellent. She skillfully takes her character on a journey through her formative years, a rebellious young woman who comes to know and love Alsop. He serves as her mentor, her moral barometer and, ultimately, her best friend, despite everything that happens in their lives.
David Auburn’s drama, which is more informative than entertaining, depicts the later life of Joseph Alsop. It’s more character-driven than plot-oriented. We see him as a conservative journalist whose private life concealed something unspoken. This secret, which eventually became common knowledge to those who knew him, haunts this arrogant, verbose columnist to the very end. We meet in Alsop an egotist who shut down everyone who ever reached out to him. Had director Keira Fromm infused her production with a tad more energy this play would really sail. As it is, the acting is quite good, and character development is flawless. Staged on Joe Schermoly’s simple, tasteful unit set, this play, which focuses on a handful of real life people, illuminates a period in history in which the power of the press was paramount. It could actually make or break a man, and it did. Much like today.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 17-April 1 by by American Blues Theater at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the theater box office, by calling 773-327-5252 or by going to www.AmericanBluesTheater.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions is available by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.