David Auburn's The Columnist, With John Lithgow as Complex Political Pundit, Opens on Broadway

News   David Auburn's The Columnist, With John Lithgow as Complex Political Pundit, Opens on Broadway
The Columnist, David Auburn's character study about the complexities and contradictions in the life and work of the late political journalist Joseph Alsop, opens in its Broadway world premiere April 25 following previews from April 4. Two-time Tony Award winner John Lithgow plays the powerful writer in this fictionalized biography.

John Lithgow and Margaret Colin in The Columnist.
John Lithgow and Margaret Colin in The Columnist. Photo by Joan Marcus

The staging is produced by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. MTC launched the premiere of Auburn's Proof Off-Broadway. The play transferred to Broadway, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award, toured and became a film. Daniel Sullivan, who won the 2001 Tony for directing Proof, again shepherds Auburn's play.

MTC bills the new work this way: "Columnists are kings in mid-century America and Joseph Alsop (Tony and Emmy Award winner John Lithgow) wears the crown. Joe is beloved, feared and courted in equal measure by the Washington political world at whose center he sits. But as the '60s dawn and America undergoes dizzying change, the intense political drama Joe is embroiled in becomes deeply personal as well."

Lithgow won the Best Actor (Musical) Tony for playing a fictional gossip and celebrity columnist, JJ Hunsecker, in Sweet Smell of Success in 2002. He won his first Tony (as Best Featured Actor in a Play) for his Broadway debut in The Changing Room in 1973. Lithgow was the star of TV's "Third Rock From the Sun" and played a memorable guest criminal in the TV series "Dexter." Read more about Lithgow's Broadway career in the Playbill Vault.

The company of The Columnist also includes Tony Award nominee Stephen Kunken (Enron, Frost/Nixon, Rock 'n' Roll) as liberal journalist David Halberstam; Grace Gummer (Arcadia, "Smash") as Alsop's stepdaughter, Abigail; Brian J. Smith (Come Back, Little Sheba) as Andrei, a young Russian man; Margaret Colin (Arcadia, MTC's Defiance) as wife Susan Alsop; four-time Tony winner Boyd Gaines (Gypsy, She Loves Me, Contact) as brother and co-columnist Stewart Alsop; and Marc Bonan (making his Broadway debut) as Abigail's boyfriend. The action takes place in the 1960s. It opens in a Moscow hotel room, where Alsop has just enjoyed a liaison with a young Russian man. 

The limited engagement plays to June 24 (representing a one-week extension) at MTC's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on West 47th Street. JJ Hunsecker of Sweet Smell of Success and Joseph Alsop were both newspaper columnists, but that's where comparisons end, Auburn and Lithgow told Playbill.com.

Boyd Gaines
photo by Joan Marcus

"He was a huge, larger-than-life, flamboyant guy — the kind of person that you want to build a play around," Auburn explained to the uninitiated. "[But] in no sense was he sort of like a gossip columnist or a scandalmonger. He was a serious foreign-policy-oriented journalist who had a lot of influence over public opinion and also was very close to the White House through a bunch of different presidencies and was really a Washington insider.

"He was a New Deal democrat. Liberal in a lot of social issues, but a very hardcore hawk on Vietnam. Vietnam was the thing that made him — and also ultimately caused him to lose his influence."

Lithgow said, "[Alsop] considered himself a kingmaker of JFK, and yet he is remembered by liberal America as very, very conservative, so he's a man of great complications and dualities, and, in fact, there was a gigantic secret in his life. The spread of the play is from 1954-1968. Extremely formative years. …He was a serious Cold Warrior. He was all about American exceptionalism. Intervention, to him, was our essential responsibility in the world, so he embraced Vietnam whole-heartedly as he was aging and as he was gradually becoming irrelevant, which was the great crisis in his life."

How did the seed of the idea of The Columnist form?

Auburn said, "I was interested in writing about journalists and war and influence and power and those kinds of things, and I started reading about Joe, and he was one of those people that sort of pops up in footnotes in a lot of different places. And, I realized here was this person who was so well known, so influential — almost a household name in his day — and now he's completely obscure. And, the play kind of came out of wondering, 'How does that happen? How do you go from being that central figure to being, at first, a kind of joke and then almost forgotten?' It was in digging into that that I found the story."

Read the Playbill Brief Encounter interview with Auburn.

The creative team includes John Lee Beatty (scenic design), Jess Goldstein (costume design), Kenneth Posner (lighting design), John Gromada (original music & sound design), Rocco DiSanti (projection design), and Charles G. LaPointe (hair and wig design).

The Columnist was developed with the support of Tennessee Repertory Theatre through its Ingram New Works Fellowship and Residency. The Columnist is a recipient of an Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award.

Ticket prices are $67-$121. Tickets are available by calling Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, online by visiting www.Telecharge.com, or by visiting the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre Box Office (261 W. 47th Street).

For more information on MTC, visit www.ManhattanTheatreClub.com.


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