By Kay Kipling
Depending on your age and your interest in politics, you may or may not remember the name Joseph Alsop—the real-life title character of Florida Studio Theatre’s current production, The Columnist, by David Auburn. For years he was a feared and much-followed journalist whose column was syndicated widely, and he wielded significant power in the halls of Washington.
But in any case, it’s doubtful you know too much about his life, and for playwright Auburn that’s a problem to overcome, not altogether successfully. The Columnist spends so much time being expository it seldom touches any emotions. It doesn’t help that Alsop himself seems to have been wary of emotions, keeping himself somewhat sealed off even from those closest to him.
The first scene of the play, set in 1954 Moscow, shows Alsop (Jeffrey Plunkett) in bed just after a tryst with a young Russian (John Keabler). Alsop’s homosexuality is not a secret to his sympathetic brother, Stewart (Robert Gomes), who’s been a collaborator on his columns, nor to his soon-to-be wife, Susan Mary (Rachel Moulton), who is, initially at least, content to share his home and hostess his parties without expecting anything more. But it is a problem for the time and place he lives in, one that leaves him ripe for exposure and/or blackmail.
Back home in D.C. years later, Alsop celebrates the election of John F. Kennedy; he was close to the Kennedy administration, as he had been to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s, despite his traditional Republican upbringing. But with Kennedy’s death, and Lyndon B. Johnson’s succession, Alsop turns to avidly—and sometimes viciously—supporting the war in Vietnam, even as other journalists (including David Halberstam, whose first scene here, played by Michael Zlabinger, feels overwrought) turn against it.
The changing times of the 1950s and ‘60s are represented by the music played before each act begins, and especially by Alsop’s stepdaughter, Abigail (Marie Claire Roussel), with whom he may share the least complicated and most simply loving relationship of his life. It’s when he’s helping her with her Latin, or trying to be the sort of parent concerned over her skirt length, that we see him at his most human.
Otherwise, in Plunkett’s performance, Alsop is cool, patrician, intellectual—all the things the man most surely was and all things that may in his day have been a sort of shield for homosexuality. But although Plunkett and his fellow cast members, along with director Kate Alexander, try to bring the play to full life, it doesn’t quite make it—remaining more of a distant look back at one man’s place in history.
The Columnist continues through April 7; for tickets call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.