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The Columnist Delivers Broadway Brilliance to Local Stage


SARASOTA – It's not every day that a talented young playwright’s follow up to a Pulitzer Prize-winning work is staged in a local theater, just months after wrapping up a successful run on Broadway. However, such fanfare can also set quite formidable expectations. But while I was disappointed to miss David Auburn's The Columnist when it starred John Lithgow this summer at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Florida Studio Theatre's Kate Alexander has achieved a masterful interpretation that not only stands on its own, but does tremendous justice to a poignant historical play that speaks loudly to modern audiences.

The Columnist, Auburn's first play since Proof (Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award and New York Drama Critics' Circle Award), is based on the life of prolific newspaper columnist Joseph Alsop, a closeted homosexual and long one of the most influential people in Washington, especially during the Kennedy presidency. A Harvard-educated relative of both Roosevelt Presidents, Alsop and his brother both served in World War II and would later write a column together, Matter of Fact, which was syndicated in nearly 200 newspapers throughout the country.


Jeffrey Plunkett and Rachel Moulton in FST's

The Columnist
Photo by Brian David Braun

Early in Alsop's career, he was photographed by KGB spies during an illicit encounter with a young man in Moscow, which is where the play picks up. Alsop was pressured to cooperate, but instead took the matter to American intelligence officials who declined to act on it, though knowledge of the matter circulated among Hoover's FBI and several presidential administrations, and rumors persisted, though rather quietly, throughout his career.

The play focuses largely on Alsop's enchantment with President Kennedy, whom he championed despite being a conservative Republican, as well as his hawkish Cold War convictions, and his belief that the U.S. should escalate its involvement in Vietnam. Alsop's obsessive desire to influence political will, as well as his habit of being dismissive of differing viewpoints and impatient with anything but ardent cooperation, spills over to all of the relationships in his life, none of which ultimately manage to survive his petulance.

Jeffrey Plunkett seems almost cartoonish in early scenes, pushing Alsop's garish persona up a hill in a sense, yet the measured contrast of John Keabler's heartfelt Andrei (the Russian spy) and Robert Gomes' affectionate turn as Alsop's endearing brother Stewart, give Plunkett room for what ultimately becomes a freight train of a performance that erupts at its crescendo, before finding a sweet spot in the broken shell of a man who finally remains – the contrast of which is nearly immeasurable.

Alsop ends up a dinosaur in his trade, his influence waning after Dallas, while his once astute perception of the national pulse fades with his refusal to accept, let alone understand the changing world around him. Rachel Moulton soars as Alsop's beard of a wife, Susan Mary, who wants only to exist outside the vacuum of their arrangement, which consists mostly of filling the seat across the table at Alsop's frequent and exclusive dinner parties.

While it is difficult to manage sympathy for Alsop at any turn – he's so abrasive that the moral dilemma resolved in the final scene seems almost inconsequential – it is ultimately the tortured experiences of those who cared for him and were rebuked from which the play draws its emotive force. The convenient wife who can manage no more; the adoring brother who was never able to penetrate his shell; the stepdaughter (Marie Clare Roussel) whom he seemed to direct more concern toward than the others, though only so long as she was a captive protégé; the peers (Michael Zlabinger shines as the composite character Halberstam from The Times) who loathe his egotism.

For anyone who has ever suffered the uncompromising nature of a certain sort of narcissistic brilliance, the tragic conflict is bound to ring triumphant, even if it does so with a taste that is undoubtedly bitter sweet. The Columnist runs through April 7 at FST's Keating Theatre. Click here for ticket information.

Jeffrey Plunkett as Joseph Alsop in The Columnist. Photo by Brian David Braun


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