John Lithgow appears to have entered the gay-columnist phase of his diverse and deservedly lauded career. In 2009 he played a queer gossip-monger in Mr and Mrs Fitch. Now, in a beautifully appointed production at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway space directed by Daniel Sullivan, Lithgow is Joseph Alsop, an influential postwar American newspaper pundit.
David Auburn, author of The Columnist and 2000’s incisive Proof, lets us know right away that Alsop is gay. In the drama’s first extended scene we are in a Moscow hotel room in 1957, and Alsop is conducting a post-coital chat with a handsome young Russian tour guide called Andrei. The ghosts of Alan Bennett’s Single Spies, Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent and a whole host of John Le Carré novels hover in the wings.
By establishing Alsop’s orientation immediately, Auburn appears to be steering clear away from yet another work in which revelations about an important man’s homosexuality fuels the drama. This approach is reinforced when we arrive, a few years later, in Washington DC, where most of the play occurs, and learn that Alsop is about to wed Susan Patten (given a fine, wounded frustration by Margaret Colin). Susan seems indifferent about her husband’s sexuality; for her, the marriage affords social advancement not sensual pleasure.
And Alsop does herd the best and the brightest toward his Georgetown dinner table: JFK and Jackie alight on inauguration night, 1961. But the glamourous secret liaisons of the era are, apparently, reserved for heterosexuals. Having the president’s ear (in which Alsop pours endless urgings to fight communism) is not tantamount to impregnable protection. Compromising photos of Alsop’s Moscow romp emerge, and his journalist brother, Stewart (portrayed by Boyd Gaines), tries to suppress them.
So we are in an Exposure Drama after all, or, since the photographs prove crucial, an exposure of exposures. Unfortunately, the unwinding of the leak’s source – were the pictures circulated by a New York Times reporter who found Joseph Alsop’s Vietnam commentary reprehensible? – is handled so unsatisfyingly that the exploration of Alsop’s family life cannot compensate. Alsop’s escalating bitterness, as America tires of his brand of Wasp-elite authority, makes him a character of diminishing interest. Even the normally compelling Lithgow labours to find the nuances that would lend Alsop humanity.