Last weekend, with a gala audience in attendance — including Tony- and Pulitzer-winning playwright David Auburn, the city's major critics and assorted dignitaries — Tennessee Repertory Theatre opened The Columnist, a drama rooted in mid-20th century American politics and journalism.
Auburn's play was developed locally in part via an Ingram fellowship in 2010 (see "From Page to Stage" on p. 22) and enjoyed a Broadway run in 2012. It's based on the true story of Joseph Alsop, a respected Washington, D.C.-based syndicated columnist whose influence was felt most heavily during the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
In New York, Alsop was played by John Lithgow. Music City audiences get the next best thing: favorite son David Alford, one of the few local thespians with the track record and gravitas to take on this tour de force role.
Presumably due to his commitments for the ongoing filming of the TV show Nashville — on which he plays Bucky Dawes, manager of country singer Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton) — Alford kept his goatee for this portrayal. Alsop himself, meanwhile, was a beardless patrician sort.
But Alsop was bearded in another way. To hide his sexual orientation, made clear in a gay dalliance in Moscow portrayed at curtain's rise, he marries Susan Mary Patten at the age of 51, thus providing an instant family to protect his secret. Alsop's reputation as an opinionated if prim political pundit was well-publicized, but his homosexuality was not.
Auburn's portrait grapples with these personal issues via two threads: an attempt by the KGB to expose Alsop's gay activity (and thus short-circuit his influence), and the eventual revelation that for obvious reasons, his marriage will not work out.
But as interesting as that all is, the main thrust here is the depiction of Alsop as a Washington insider whose strong anti-communist stance held firm through the Cold War and the Vietnam debacle. Auburn's text is clearly rooted more in historical research than conjecture, and the author puts forth a credible portrait with a straightforward structure.
Alford plays it all with general panache, though Auburn's strongly pitched Act 1 arc flattens out in the drier Act 2, as the excitement of the national political scene turns glum with the advent of sad personal events, such as the death of Alsop's brother and collaborator, Stewart.
There's an estimable cast backing up Alford, under the direction of René Copeland. Jeff Boyet is an earnest Stewart, and Jenny Littleton's Susan Mary is carefully depicted. With the exception of their occasionally close interaction with each other, these characterizations appear overly formal, but that may well be the intention of Auburn's script — they are, after all, members of the Washington aristocracy. As Alsop's stepdaughter Abigail, Amanda Card yet again uncannily captures the spirit and mindset of one far younger than herself — from impatient high schooler to college-age war protester.
Also on hand is Patrick Waller as the Russian Andrei, and he's rock-solid. That is slightly less true for Benjamin Reed, who has the challenging task of playing a young David Halberstam. But after a fairly weak entrance, Reed achieves a credible portrayal of the jaded war correspondent. Will Miranne completes the ensemble in a brief cameo.
Gary Hoff's set is generally effective and serves its multifunctional purposes, though its most common locus, Alsop's Georgetown home, might have benefited from a little more colonial charm.
Quibbles aside, The Columnist explores a compelling figure and complicated chapter of American history, and it's worth a trip to see it performed by the company that helped it take flight.
It runs through May 4 at TPAC's Johnson Theater.