Chicago Theater Review: THE COLUMNIST (American Blues Theater at Stage 773)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 24, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


Never confuse fear with respect. During the Cold War, when the Russians were less deniably our enemies, op-ed tyro Joe Alsop rivaled gossip czar Walter Winchell in gaining the ears of politicians—and, sometimes, as with Sen. Joseph McCarthy, other parts as well. For better and for worse, Alsop is the title creature in The Columnist by David (Proof) Auburn.

Now in a brooding and relevant Chicago premiere by American Blues Theater at Stage 773, Auburn’s acid-etched portrait of the pundit with 190 outlets for his conservative crusading is, to paraphrase Alsop’s hero, a portrait in cowardice. Along with Stewart, his less recklessly partisan brother who wrote for the staid Saturday Evening Post, Joe Alsop carved out a career serving the powers that be for the protection they provided. For a self-made patrician like Alsop “politics is life”: This closeted homosexual, who was unsuccessfully blackmailed by the KGB, is here found guilty of sacrificing one for the other.

In taut scenes stretching from the Eisenhower Era (1954) to the height (or, more properly, the depth) of the war in Vietnam (1968), Auburn doggedly chronicles Alsop’s “patriotic” pursuit of power—not just influence but the pols he can control. The play begins and ends with very different encounters between Alsop (a snarling and unrepentant Philip Earl Johnson) and a Russian lad named Andrei (a poignant Christopher Sheard). In the beginning, Andrei beds and betrays Joe—but, 14 years later, when the young man wants to make amends, Alsop will have none of it. He’s beyond blackmail and beneath forgiveness. Alsop has become the product of his own cruelty. By then we know how if not why.

In between these bittersweet encounters, Johnson’s implacable Alsop incongruously supports the candidacy of John Kennedy (“Stevenson with balls”)—for the wrong reasons. Alsop becomes the Alpha cheerleader for our 15-year folly in Southeast Asia. A “chicken hawk” wanna-be warrior, this master manipulator believes that J.F.K. can be guided or goaded into increasing our not so inevitable involvement in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. When Kennedy is assassinated (the saddest scene in this show), a Rasputin-like Alsop moves on to converting L.B.J. into serving what Eisenhower warned against, the military-industrial complex.

Alsop, who invented the term “domino theory” for the supposed containment of Communism, is rabid in his prosecution of the undeclared “conflict.” That means attacking the younger, more observant, reporters in the field, like his rival New York Times’ reporter David Halberstam (an unflinching Ian Paul Cluster). Halberstam, patient in persecution, is one of several hard-working, reputable reporters who Alsop accuses of enabling the enemy by reporting the bad news coming from the killing rice fields (Walter Cronkite hardly fares better when he turns against a losing mistake).

In his private life the sexist Alsop proves as much a bully as he ever is in print: Having married Susan Mary (Kymberly Mellen) to disguise his homosexuality, he treats her like a token, preferring to instruct her daughter Abigail (Tyler Meredith) in Latin—until she finally opposes his pet war. Just as wastefully, Joe condescends to and patronizes younger brother Stewart (Coburn Goss, plaintive in his “second banana” status). He won’t forgive Stewart for repudiating his right-wing mores, at least not before Stewart dies of leukemia in 1967.

As with Roy Cohn (another unscrupulous and reactionary closet case), Alsop eventually isolates himself by his own perverse process of elimination. He alienates everyone who won’t march in lockstep to support the combat that slaughters 55,000 American youth for no good reason. For two decades a fear-mongering, doom-spouting Alsop inflexibly cleaves to the wrong side of history, playing power games for a lost cause. But, as Auburn depicts in these 145 minutes, Alsop’s ideological errors, like denouncing as “defeatists” the conscientious columnists who reported the truth about our failure in Indochina, are part of the same continuum of concealment that made him hide his sexuality. He was nothing if not diabolically consistent.

The Columnist, persuasively shaped by Keira Fromm, is a cautionary screed. This valuable drama powerfully conflates lying about love with prosecuting the wrong war. Ironically, Alsop was protected by another nasty closet case, J. Edgar Hoover (who saved his righteous wrath for real freedom fighters like Martin Luther King). It takes one to know one. Cohn, Hoover and Alsop—there’s a real axis of evil.

photos by Johnny Knight

The Columnist
American Blues Theater
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
Thurs and Fri at 7:30; Sat at 3 & 7:30; Sun at 2:30
(check for schedule exceptions)
ends on April 1, 2017
for tickets, call 773.327.5252 or visit American Blues Theater

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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