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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama


The Columnist

David Auburn

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To purchase The Columnist

Title: The Columnist
Author: David Auburn
Genre: Drama
Written: 2012
Length: 99 pages
Availability: The Columnist - US
The Columnist - UK
The Columnist - Canada
The Columnist - India
  • The Columnist premiered 25 April 2012 in New York, in a production directed by Daniel Sullivan and starring John Lithgow

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Our Assessment:

B : great main role; solid character study, but in limited space can only get so far

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly B+ 25/4/2012 Keith Staskiewicz
The LA Times . 26/4/2012 Charles McNulty
New York Post D 25/4/2012 Elisabeth Vincentelli
The NY Times C 26/4/2012 Ben Brantley
Wall Street Journal B- 26/4/2012 Terry Teachout

  From the Reviews:
  • "Despite Lithgow's powerful performance, The Columnist spends a surprisingly long amount of time away from its titular character. (...) Still, it's a testament to Lithgow's magnetism that the scenes without him seem like rude interruptions from the main event." - Keith Staskiewicz , Entertainment Weekly

  • "Auburn has essentially written a character study that looks at the way Alsop negotiates his two identities -- one supremely public, the other discreetly closeted -- in the context of the radically changing landscape of 1960s America. The playwright refuses to reduce a complicated life to a few thematic points, but this virtue turns into a salient weakness as the play conspicuously lacks dramatic thrust." - Charles McNulty, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The problem is that Alsop doesn’t change much over the course of the play, and despite massaging some facts, Auburn doesn’t find any dramatic traction. (...) In the end, The Columnist is not much more than a lot of blah, blah." - Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post

  • "The masterly director Daniel Sullivan (...) and a very good cast (...) do their best to bring flesh to what remains essentially an annotated outline. Sometimes they succeed. But you always hear the dry rustle of reference materials in the background -- of time lines, headlines and lists of famous names to be included." - Ben Brantley, The New York Times

  • "David Auburn has written a pretty good play about an immensely promising subject. It's the gap between expectation and result that makes The Columnist a disappointment (.....) The Columnist covers an 11-year span of time, which is too much for Mr. Auburn to fit gracefully into a two-hour play. (...) It would have taken a Tom Stoppard to shape this endless succession of events into a dynamically theatrical plot. Mr. Auburn, for all his skill, lacks that kind of flair, nor does he have Mr. Stoppard's knack for bringing historical figures to life. (...) Fortunately, Mr. Auburn finds his footing in the more personal parts of The Columnist, especially the well-written scenes in which Alsop interacts with his wife and stepdaughter" - Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Columnist at the center of this play is Joseph 'Joe' Alsop, a famous and influential American journalist back in the day; the play is set between 1954 and 1968, when Alsop was still very much a dominant figure of the old guard, most notable in his militant defense of (and, indeed, insistence on) American involvement in Indochina.
       Alsop was also a homosexual, and the play opens with him on a visit to Moscow, having just romped with a local tour guide -- a bad idea, as it turns out, as no sooner has his new young friend left when there's a knock on the door and an ominous voice asks to speak with Alsop -- presumably the KGB, all set to blackmail the guy. They even have compromising pictures, it eventually turns out, and one question that hovers over much of the play is how Alsop reacted: how much was he compromised by these pictures.
       The play has a relatively small cast: aside from Alsop and his Russian fling, there's his brother, Stewart; Susan, the woman Joe marries, and her teenage daughter, Abigail; journalist David Halberstam, the young gun who is fighting against Alsop's reactionary ways and attitudes; and the single-word-uttering Philip, Abigail's boyfriend.
       Joe is a domineering figure, and comfortable in that role; he does, however, have trouble changing with the changing times. Joe hob-nobs with the power-elite -- an apparently typical dinner in 1965 includes the McNamaras, the Achesons, and senators Fulbright and Church -- but his personal relationships are a bit more complicated. For a long time he and his brother wrote a widely syndicated column together, but despite Joe wanting to keep that up Stewart opts to go solo at the Saturday Evening Post, which is more his speed. Joe and Susan get married -- with the clear understanding that any physical relationship is not in the cards, since Joe's interests lie elsewhere; Susan thinks she can handle that, but it turns out she has more trouble with it than expected.
       Joe is very sure of himself, and can appear to ruthlessly bulldoze over anyone else's opinion, but Auburn nicely suggests there's a bit more to him. One fine scene has him alternating between a small domestic dispute -- Abigail wants to head out in an inappropriately short skirt -- and telephone calls to James Reston, editor at The New York Times ("a rival newspaper" -- not that Joe sees it that way), trying to convince Reston to fire the star reporters Halberstam and Sheehan (because he feels they are reporting Vietnam all wrong). Joe complains about Abigail's skirt and orders her to go change -- but then tells Susan she shouldn't be so rigid with the girl, revealing it was pretty much just an act:

I am the stepparent. It's my job to be waspish and brutal, thus opening up the space for you to appear sympathetic and accommodating.
       While denigrating the hippies and anti-war demonstrators, Joe does remain somewhat open-minded regarding the young folk, understanding that they have to go their own way even as he disagrees with them; Abigail, however, is the only one he's openly understanding with -- otherwise, and in his public pronouncements, he gives them rather a hard time.
       The play jumps over the years from scene to scene. Joe had high hopes for the Kennedy administration, but the early hopes -- the second scene of the play is inauguration night, 1961 -- are dashed by Kennedy's assassination. Joe is less of a fan of Kennedy's successor, and keeps up the pressure on LBJ, even as the Vietnam War turns into the quagmire it became.
       Auburn changes some of the facts, compressing the timeline: Stewart is killed off before his time (he died in 1974, but Auburn dispatches him in 1967), and the Soviets apparently only circulated the Moscow-pictures in the 1970s, rather than the 1960s. This allows Auburn to round things off in 1968, when the war is clearly going south and the times really are a changing, with Joe having to decide which principles really matter to him.
       The role of Joe is a powerful one: he completely dominates the play, his homosexuality and his relationship with Abigail (and, to some extent, his brother) giving a slightly vulnerable edge to what would be an otherwise nearly unbearably pompous figure. It's meat for any actor -- a tour de force with even just a minimum of effort -- and the play should do well because of that alone.
       Auburn also shows good playwriting command: there's hardly an exchange here that isn't well-crafted, and some which are simply perfect, such as the early Moscow hotel room exchange between Alsop and the tour guide he's just had sex with, Joe explaining that he's a newspaper columnist, syndicated in one hundred and ninety newspapers (and explaining that in the US: "Even the smallest town has its own weekly. It's one of our great strength" -- an amusing/disheartening reminder of yet another way times have changed since ...):
YOUNG MAN: So what are you writing about here ?
JOE: The menace you pose to us.
JOE: You seem very nice. No, you collectively.
       Nevertheless, the play as a whole feels a bit thin, so much material compressed into so few pages. With its jumps across years, The Columnist seems to skim along the surface; the use of a real but largely forgotten figures (Joe Alsop ?) from this different era (the play ends the year before playwright Auburn was born) gives the whole story a somewhat quaint, distanced feel. It's a fine character portrait (if a bit too much in a nutshell), but feels a bit out of touch with the present. Despite its well-written scenes, it doesn't quite add up to enough.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 April 2012

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The Columnist: Reviews: Other plays by David Auburn under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American playwright David Auburn was born in 1969. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Kesselring Prize.

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© 2012 the complete review

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