Never has a play about journalism, the presidency and Cold War with Russia seemed more relevant than now. And The Columnist, performed by The American Blues Theater at Stage 773, is all of that and more. In a story that could have easily been set during today’s heated political environment, The Columnist is a scintillating tale of family, power, betrayal and personal struggle.
Written by the Pulitzer and Tony award-winning author David Auburn and directed by Keira Fromm, The Columnist is based on real-life journalists Joe Alsop (Philip Earl Johnson) and his brother Stewart Alsop (Coburn Goss). Once a power writing duo, the play begins with Joe, now one of America’s most influential columnists - both feared and beloved, caught in a revealing and compromising position in a Moscow hotel.
That affair and its consequences runs like an undercurrent throughout the entire play as we see Joe battle for power, his ideas on what American exceptionalism entails and how the president (both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson) should achieve it no matter the costs. We also see his struggle to keep his private life separate from the illusion he creates for the public.
Johnson is exquisite and brilliant in the role of Joe Alsop and very capably humanizes such a towering political figure of the time.
Joe is a man who loves his country and family with equal and blinding passion but in the rapidly changing world of the 1960’s, against the backdrop of the Vietnam war, his inability to see beyond his own beliefs pushes away those closest to him. He manages to alienate even some of his most ardent admirers and colleagues.
However, despite the growing distance between Joe and his family – his perfectly cast, dutiful and charming wife Susan (played by the equally charming Kymberly Mellen), his precocious stepdaughter Abigail (Tyler Meredith) and his sincere and loyal brother Stewart, what is conveyed even at some of his lowest points is how much they still love him despite his many flaws.
Stewart and Abigail are perhaps two of Joe’s most pivotal relationships. Several key moments come when they both show not only how much they understand him, as well as what drives him, but also their acceptance of the contradiction of his public figure and private life. This understanding and acceptance comes even though they often disagree with his passionate defense of the war as well as his methods of squashing the dissenting views of fellow journalists. Both Goss and Meredith play their roles with such depth and nuance that it’s easy to feel their characters’ compassion for such a complex man.
The ability of Auburn to delve so deeply into these relationships and to keep the plot moving at the fast pace of an intriguing spy novel is impressive. Also, very impressive and effective is the staging and the way several of the more dramatic moments are highlighted, especially during transitions. After several poignant and emotional scenes, having Joe stand in a single spotlight as the darkened set changes behind him is a powerful effect, and whether intended or not, is a reflection of the often-tumultuous changes happening in his life.
The creative team for The Columnist: Joe Schermoly (scenic design), Christopher J. Neville (costume design), Jared Gooding (lighting design), Christopher Kriz (original music and sound design), Alec Long (props design), Sarah E. Ross (production manager), Eva Breneman (dialect coach), Sara Illiatovitch-Goldman (dramaturg), and Dana M. Nestrick (stage manager), does an amazing job of enhancing an already powerful script and showcasing as Joe says: “human intercourse at its sublimely ridiculous.”
American Blues Theater’s The Columnist runs through April 1, 2017, at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont. Tickets are available in online at americanbluestheater.com.