Gotham Diary:
Arrogant Hoo-haw
6 June 2012

Let’s start with the attractions. The Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of David Auburn’s play, The Columnist, was very well cast, and the actors never failed to entertain. John Lithgow’s impersonation of Joseph Alsop, one of the most powerful columnists in the history of American journalism, was great fun while also engaging sympathy for an unsympathetic character. Grace Gummer, playing Alsop’s step-daughter (here called Abby), brought all the sharpness of changing times to Alsop’s stuffy house. Margaret Colin (as Susan Mary Alsop, briefly Joe’s wife) and Boyd Gaines (as Stewart Alsop, the younger, far more likeable brother) did the very best with their roles, and then some. Brian Smith evoked an appealing young Russian with a wry sense of humor. In supporting roles, Stephen Kunken (David Halberstam) and Marc Bonan (Philip) were unexceptionable. 

John Lee Beatty’s sets for the outdoor scenes were memorable as well as appealing, capturing the verdant formality of the nation’s capital with textured rectangular abstractions backed by the tops of Washington’s distinctive lampposts.

***

Mr Beatty’s sets for the indoor scenes were of a piece with the play itself: Grade A Undergraduate. The interiors — a library and a living room — did not even remotely suggest one of the most gracious and well-appointed homes in Georgetown; what they did suggest was a shoestring budget. Alsop’s desk was a tiny oval affair, barely the size of a boudoir table, and the wall of books behind it soaked up half of everything the actors had to say. What the actors had to say teetered between standard expository theatre talk — the familiar but stylized intercourse in which playwrights convey loads of background information through what pretends to be a conversation among intimates — and urgent arguments about love and politics that sought to make a connection between the two, all coated with the dulled gleam of formerly conventional manners of speech. It was all pretty fusty.

I never could decide whether David Auburn was trying to tell us that Joe Alsop went all out in support of the Vietnam War as a way of compensating, with masculine bellicosity, for being a rather unloving closeted homosexual; or whether, in the alternative, the message was that even a semi-closeted gay man could put the patriarchal power structure to personal use if he were ballsy enough. Insofar as playwrighting is like ballroom dancing, Mr Auburn was an uncertain leader, wavering between these two approaches to his central character. He ought to have taken greater pains to avoid the first impression altogether, as it was not supported by the facts — the facts presented in the play itself. He ought to have resisted the allure of a blackmail scenario, setting the audience quaking with dread of the dire damage of revelation. Joe Alsop was never afraid of blackmail — it turns out. That’s the big surprise in the climactic scene. Knowing that he’d been photographed in bed with a young man by Russian agents, he took the photographs straight to the American ambassador; he made sure that everyone knew what low and dirty tricks the Russians would stoop to. His timing must have been perfect, because this brazen defiance actually worked. That it did work would have been something meaty for a play to chew on, but not, perhaps, in a climactic scene. In the climax of The Columnist, the audience realizes that it has been had.

The problem with the alternative message is that it leaves a big question untouched: why would anybody, gay or straight, have wanted to support the Vietnam War? How could so many establishment types have been so gung-ho about so profoundly a misinformed project? The answer to that question has nothing to do with blackmail, or sexuality, or whether Joe Alsop could allow himself to be lovingly intimate with anybody. The answer is to be found not between the sheets but behind the desks — the desks at Groton and all the other elite Anglophone academies on both sides of the Atlantic, where no end of arrogant racist sexist WASPy hoo-haw was poured into the ears of privileged boys, deforming generations of bright and powerful men.

That would have been one way to put Joseph Alsop to good dramatic use. An even better one might have focused on Alsop’s marriage to Susan Mary Patten, widowed mother of two. The essence of this might-have-been play was crammed into one awkward scene in The Columnist — awkward because we needed more. Susan Mary thought that she knew what she was doing when she married Alsop; he was clear about his carnal circuitry. But she found that she was wrong. She found that she did not care for life with a man who had no real use for a woman except as social fixtures at the other end of a long dining table of luminaries. She wanted more. I’d have liked to see a play about her. I hope that Margaret Colin gets another, better chance. I also hope that she gets better dresses.

***

O joy! O rapture unforeseen! I just found the lid to Will’s teapot. Less than an inch in diameter, the lid blends in well with the rug in the blue room, and I must have missed it five or six times while poring over the floor in search of it. Then, just now, as I was folding a T shirt, there it was. Ecstasy, really.

I can’t tell whether progress is being made. In the old days, I misplaced things all the time, and was miserable about it, for a while; but, hey, I was always losing things. I managed to live with it. Now, things are different. I do not misplace things. What never? Well, hardly ever — and it’s much harder to take when I do. In the past week, I’ve suffered a streak of numbskull droppings, such as leaving my wallet on a dark bookshelf where I’d never put it if I were conscious. As a rule, though, I’ve gotten very good about knowing where things are. Lately, that includes Will’s toys, of which, suddenly, there are lots.

While Will plays with his toys, I entertain myself by picking up after him. The secret is understanding that healthy boys crave disorder. I am not entirely in on this secret, but I act as though I were. I do not groan when Will overturns a basket or evacuates a box. No, that’s what they’re for! So! Here are four of his five little VWs; where’s the green one? Got it! All the pieces of the stegosaurus jigsaw puzzle accounted for — bravo! I kept on eye on the teapot lid for most our time yesterday, but at some point my vigilance must have slipped. It was the first thing that I looked for this morning, and not being able to find it was disheartening. It was only after I’d put everything away, and even carried what was left of the teaset (everything but the lid) into the kitchen to wash it —

I should explain that, at first, we pretended that the teapot lid wasn’t removable, because, as Will’s mother reasoned, he would only want to fill it with water if he knew that he could. So we put that off as long as possible. But by the time he realized that the lid wasn’t a dummy (even though he needed help pulling it out — tight fit!), he’d moved on. Why fill a teapot with water when you can fill it with raisins? It’s likely that I didn’t see the teapot lid on the floor because I was still training my eyes for stray raisins.