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Lithgow’s Closeted Alsop Shilled for JFK, Pentagon

John Lithgow as the influential Washington writer Joseph Alsop in ``The Columnist'' in New York. Photographer: Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown via Bloomberg

David Auburn’s intensely satisfying new drama “The Columnist” has as much to do with journalism as “Proof,” his Pulitzer Prize winner, had to do with mathematics.

Which is to say, only tangentially, and thank goodness for that. “The Columnist” is about power.

In a thriller-paced Broadway production staged by Daniel Sullivan, John Lithgow plays political columnist and consummate Washington insider Joseph Alsop.

At one time, Alsop (frequently with his brother, Stewart) was at the top of D.C.’s journalistic food chain, cozying up to the best and brightest, offering unsolicited advice, protecting the peccadilloes of friends in high places and needling enemies with the full power of a press that mattered.

The play begins in a Moscow hotel room at the end of Joe’s tryst with a man who turns out to be a Soviet agent.

Alsop’s life in the closet is the worst-kept secret among the Georgetown elites.

He marries his close friend Susan Mary (Margaret Colin, in a heartbreaking performance) to further the sham.

No one is fooled (except perhaps Susan Mary herself). His attentive relationship with her college-bound daughter Abigail (Grace Gummer) goes a long way in humanizing Alsop, whose imperiousness will expand in direct proportion to the diminishment of his power.

Kennedy Visits

Alsop, who denounces red baiting senator Joseph McCarthy as a “thug,” celebrates the election of John F. Kennedy. The president stuns him with a visit late in the night following his inauguration.

A Yankee blueblood groomed in boarding schools and the Ivy League, Alsop is drunk on visions of the cultural changes a Kennedy administration promises.

Those visions are dashed in Dallas, by which time Alsop has begun crusading for increased U.S. intervention in Vietnam.

His chief antagonists are journalists like David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, whose dispatches from the front regularly debunked the myths of winning, decanted by the Pentagon into Alsop’s columns.

Halberstam, played by Stephen Kunken with an exacting blend of arrogance and integrity, dogs Alsop, who eventually alienates even his brother (the fine Boyd Gaines).

War Machine

The evening belongs to Lithgow, exulting in his best role in years.

Wearing Alsop’s signature owlish horn-rimmed spectacles and expertly capturing his polished, vaguely British locution, Lithgow rides the currents of “The Columnist” with elan.

One moment he’s lecturing Abigail on her improper skirt hem. Next he’s in a life-or-death struggle with Stewart.

Their fiercest argument concerns seductions of power that have led him to betray his readers in exchange for continued access to an increasingly duplicitous war machine.

What Auburn and his star astutely reveal is the slow, sad extinguishing of the very life force that comes, inevitably, with irrelevance.

Through June 17 at the Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. Information: +1- 212-239-6200; Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:
****        Do Not Miss
***         Excellent
**          Good
*           So-So
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Today’s Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars and Rich Jaroslovsky on tech.

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