A great playwright, a great star, and a great subject aren’t enough to keep ‘The Columnist’ from being boring

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John Lithgow performs the role of Joe Alsop in 'The Columnist.' ()
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Journalism can be an exciting career—ethical scandals, political intrigue, ferocious battles over the truth. So why can't anyone seem to make a play about journalists that's anything but dull?

Broadway's latest effort, the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of The Columnist, would seem to have the right ingredients: thoughtful playwright David Auburn (Proof), charismatic star John Lithgow, and source material that's rich with possibilities. It's the story of real-life syndicated columnist Joe Alsop, a Washington insider best remembered for his role in helping to escalate the Vietnam war—as well as a KGB blackmail scheme touched off by his sexual escapades with men.

Yet The Columnist tamps down the excitement, smoothing over most of the explosive political drama—war! espionage! betrayal!—leaving little more than a gentle character sketch of a man struggling (fairly calmly and fairly predictably) with his personal demons. And as in this season's earlier newspaper-themed offerings CQ/CX (about Times reporter Jayson Blair) and The Wood (about Daily News columnist Mike McAlary), the result is plodding, mechanical, and dull.

Alsop was a powerful pundit in the 1950s and '60s, syndicating a reported opinion column—for many years co-written with his brother Stewart, and later a solo gig—and rubbing shoulders with Washington's biggest power-brokers, including more than one president.

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An upper-class WASP with conservative morals, a staunchly anti-communist bent, and a hawkish approach to foreign affairs, Alsop would have seemed the archetypal William F. Buckley-style Republican, yet he was a Democrat—with family ties to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a personal friendship with John F. Kennedy. His columns supporting involvement in Vietnam and later escalation of the war under Lyndon B. Johnson would finally end his prominence as a columnist: He appeared to be a dupe of the sources he'd befriended, from Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to General William Westmoreland, parroting back their misinformation about Vietnam while a new generation of scrappy young reporters (especially Times reporter David Halberstam) were searching for the real story in the field. The buttoned-down Alsop was suddenly old guard, establishment, too well-connected to get the truth.

Alsop's homosexuality was widely rumored but never publicly disclosed, as he married a woman and helped raise her children (only one of whom is represented in the play); his frequent travels around the globe allowed him more license, though, far from home. Along the way, he fell victim to a KGB blackmail scheme following a tryst in Moscow. How he handled the situation—discreetly but boldly for the time, refusing to be blackmailed and instead revealing the information personally to people who might have used it against him—says a lot about him, and how quickly social mores were changing in the 1960s, but most of that is missing from The Columnist.

In fact, most of the fire has been removed from Alsop's life. One of the only times The Columnist really heats up, illuminating the political and personal conflicts at hand, comes in Act II, when Joe and Stewart get into a shouting match about press coverage of a specific battle in Vietnam: The facts are not in dispute, but Joe sees the battle as an American victory (surrounded and outnumbered, the U.S. army killed hundreds of North Vietnamese troops and escaped) while most reporters paint it as a horrible loss due to the number of Americans who were killed. Here we see the crux of Alsop's dilemma—it's not that he necessarily got his facts wrong, but rather that his perspective on the war was out of step with most Americans, whose views on the war changed even as Alsop's remained doctrinaire. His opinion didn't resonate anymore, and that spelled the end of his influence. "Washington is my territory—everyone knows me, everyone fears me," he says in the opening scene; without the fear, he had no power.

Lithgow has played a columnist before, as a Walter Winchell-like figure in the 2002 Broadway musical Sweet Smell of Success. Here, he's retained the gravitas and condescending elitism that the part of Alsop demands, but he lacks both the ingratiating charm and off-putting vinegar that he brought to that earlier role. Boyd Gaines is likable enough as Stewart, although we never get to see what he really thinks—about his brother's sham marriage, or his pro-war cheerleading—or why he quit the co-written column in the first place. The rest of the cast is fine, especially Stephen Kunken as a young Halberstam, and Margaret Colin as Alsop's patient wife, but the general lack of tension in the script means that they don't have a chance to explore their own conflicts with Alsop on a deeper, more dramatic level.

The Columnist is showing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. Tickets are $67-121. Call 212-239-6200.