There are few noises that sound as hopeful or as ominous as the clicking of keys on a typewriter, which makes it an appropriate noise for the opening scene of David Auburn’s historical drama The Columnist, currently in performances at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. Directed by Daniel Sullivan and starring a riveting John Lithgow as political journalist Joseph Aslop, The Columnist is a compelling story of politics and personalities during a tumultuous time in American politics.
Aslop was a contradictory man, to say the least. Despite being openly liberal and supporting the New Deal, fighting for civil rights and opposing the Red Scare, he was a conservative during the Cold War and firm believer in the class system. He was also, as the opening scene of The Columnist depicts, a closeted homosexual who was faced with incriminating photographs from a blackmailing member of the KGB. The Columnist follows Aslop from a bedroom in Russia following a pleasurable afternoon with a Communist named Andrei through John F. Kennedy’s election, assassination and into the age of Aquarius, when anti-war protests fill the streets of Washington D.C.
Successfully hitting all the notes of such a complex character like Aslop is a challenge, but it is a challenge that Lithgow easily accomplishes – and seems to relish in. As the titular character, Lithgow is in his element, delivering a performance of ferocious intensity, portraying Aslop’s personal vulnerability as well as his political and professional power. In the opening scene when he asks Andrei if he is a prostitute, which Andrei vehemently denies – Aslop, apparently surprised that such a man would be attracted to him, asks hesitantly, “Are you saying you came here because you wanted to?” Aslop had undeniable power in Washington, clearly demonstrated when, after celebrating his inauguration, Kennedy appears at his home for a quiet drink. But he also struggled to exercise the same control over his personal life, especially in his marriage of convenience with celebrated political hostess Susan Mary (an excellent Margaret Colin) and his relationship with his brother and sometimes collaborator Stewart (the always outstanding Boyd Gaines). Colin is graciously dignified and particularly touching when she reluctantly admits to her husband that she had hoped their relationship might change after the marriage. Boyd gives Stewart a quiet backbone and authentic sadness as he witnesses his brother’s professional decline following the death of Kennedy.
Auburn’s script parallels political success with personal, which is especially apparent in the portrayal of Kennedy’s assassination and Aslop’s personal grief and fear following the President’s death. Aslop’s unwavering support of the Vietnam War puzzles and angers his colleagues in the field, especially the New York Times reporter David Halberstam, (played with vigor and enthusiasm by Stephen Kunken). Halberstam makes it clear that Aslop’s elitist attitude is not welcome in the trenches, partly because Aslop himself refuses to go to the trenches but instead conducts two-day long exclusive interviews in comfort. Aslop does not respond well to the changing attitude of the press and the people who read it, and his reaction is that of a petulant child in an overgrown man’s body and business suit. His insufferable insistence that he is always right can clearly be frustrating to those around him, but his equally stubborn insistence that he is doing the right thing for the country is also endearing. Lithgow, whose languid way of speaking can instantly switch into an angry bellow, portrays this contradiction wonderfully.
The changing attitude of the country is personified in Aslop’s stepdaughter Abigail, capably played by Grace Gummer. Her shifting attitudes and fashions reflect the changes in America at that tumultuous time, and when Aslop finally, nervously comes out to her as a homosexual and she innocently responds by saying, “It isn’t a big deal. I think everyone knows,” his shock is apparent. The changing times are beautifully represented by John Lee Beatty’s sets, Jess Goldstein’s costumes and Kenneth Posner’s lighting.
The events that occur during The Columnist are strictly limited to the 1960s in America, and several winking historical references are made in the script. (When Susan Mary ponders moving out of Aslop’s house, her mention of, “that new apartment complex,” clearly referencing Watergate, inspired several chuckles from the audience.) The power of the press at that time is presented in a sharp contradiction to the effect of media today. Aslop wrote his columns on a typewriter before they were syndicated to hundreds of papers around the world; this seems quaint to a reviewer who writes strictly for the Web and will post this review on Facebook and Twitter after it goes live. One wonders what Aslop would think of the oversaturation of our 24 hour news cycle that we can instantly access on our phones.
However different the world may be these days, the lingering feeling inspired by The Columnist is one of timelessness. Aslop worked passionately because he felt passionately. He wanted the world to be a better place and thought that his writing would help accomplish that. On the evening of JFK’s inauguration, which was clearly a joyous occasion for him, he says, “Jack will make this country interesting again…a time of youth and excitement and energy and vigor.” The same feelings were familiar back in January of 2009 when Barack Obama was sworn in. Let’s hope that a few reporters in this decade will work as hard as Aslop did.