There was a time, not so long ago, when reporters pounded on Underwood typewriters, when major cities had five or six dailies and powerful newspaper columnists shaped political policy without screaming on talk radio or cable TV.
But "The Columnist," David Auburn's compelling new drama starring a magnificent John Lithgow, is not being romantic about that heyday of print journalism. Nor is the playwright, who won the 2001 Pulitzer for "Proof," too obviously taking sides about the impact of Joseph Alsop, the mega-powerful syndicated columnist who died in 1989, at 78, and is pretty much forgotten outside the bubble of Washington journalism junkies.
Unlike "Proof," which basically used higher mathematics as a background for a conventional family drama, "The Columnist" marinates in rich and real ramifications of the Cold War, JFK and Vietnam to create a fascinating study of a man and an era.
It is up to the experts to debate the facts about this complicated fellow, a New Deal liberal, a WASP Republican, McCarthy foe, war hawk and closeted gay whose fortunes soured along with Southeast Asia. As theater, however, director Daniel Sullivan's beautifully acted production -- with its seemingly effortless turntable set with the hallucinatory flying typewriter letters by John Lee Beatty -- digs swiftly and stylishly into the intersections of the personal and the political.
We begin with a scene that, content aside, shows Alsop at his most emotionally open, naked in a Moscow hotel room with a young man (Brian J. Smith). Before realizing the KGB entrapped him, Alsop unself-consciously exposes both the ego and the insecurities that drive his downfall.
Margaret Colin has a nobody's-fool graciousness as his late-life wife who, at first, thrives in the swirling power-center of their Georgetown home. Grace Gummer matures delicately through the tumultuous years as his adored stepdaughter. Boyd Gaines is exquisitely conflicted as his brother and former writing partner, while Stephen Kunken balances contempt and compassion as David Halberstam, Alsop's adversary on Vietnam.
Most of all, there is Lithgow, who creates a fully formed man beyond the owl glasses, the high-tone accent and the three-piece suits -- which get subtly rumpled as Alsop's equilibrium teeters on his world view. "You cannot imagine how this city was in the '30s," he tries to tell his daughter. We can't know how it was in the '60s, either, but we can imagine better now.
WHAT "The Columnist"
WHERE Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., Manhattan
INFO $67-$121; 212-239-6200; manhattantheatreclub.com
BOTTOM LINE Magnificent Lithgow in gripping look at a flawed powerhouse of mid-20th-century journalism