Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Through June 24, $67-$121
Based on the real life of American journalist Joseph Alsop, David Auburn’s The Columnist is a rather sterile exercise in twentieth-century historical fiction. Multitalented Tony and Emmy winner and Oscar nominee John Lithgow, a Rochester-born Harvard grad who in recent years has played a serial killer on Dexter, published a series of popular children’s books, and penned his autobiography (An Actor’s Education), gives a wonderful performance as the erudite Alsop, an acerbic columnist who believes he is more powerful than the president. A staunch conservative, he is surprisingly delighted with JFK’s victory, celebrating with his wife, Mary (Margaret Colin), stepdaughter, Abigail (Grace Gummer), and brother and sometime writing partner, Stewart (Boyd Gaines), convinced that the new president will show up at his house on the night of the inauguration. But Alsop’s power and influence begin to wane as he very publicly pushes for greater U.S. involvement in Vietnam, directly challenged by such up-and-coming journalists as David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken), while Stewart tries to protect his brother from a potential scandal surrounding a sexual fling Joe had with a young Russian man (Brian J. Smith) several years before, depicted in a very strong scene that opens the play. Auburn, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2000 play, Proof, never quite gets below the surface in The Columnist, resulting in a series of predictable, clichéd moments that feel stale and unnecessary, particularly when delving into the Vietnam war, something in interviews he claimed to know very little about, which shows. He does somewhat better handling the practical marriage between Alsop, a closeted homosexual, and Mary, a respected DC party hostess, although he changes several important facts about their relationship, including its length, and turns Mary’s two daughters into one. Directed by Shakespeare veteran Daniel Sullivan, The Columnist, despite a terrific lede and a Tony-nominated lead actor, is still in need of significant editing.