“The Columnist” @ American Blues Theater

“The Columnist” @ American Blues Theater

Theater Review by Jerald Raymond Pierce

2.5 out of 4

A lot will be made about how timely American Blues Theater’s production of The Columnist is. A play about the power of the press, the frailty of bravado, and the corrosiveness of a secret? It’s easy to see how that plays in today’s political climate. This Chicago premiere comes from the award-wining playwright of Proof, David Auburn, but is decidedly more drab. Auburn’s play may be about the rise and fall of Joe Alsop, the most influential journalist in America at the height of the Cold War, but it plays much more like a documentary than the political drama it aspires to.

It’s never a great sign when the first scene of a play is the pinnacle of the production. That was the case with the beginning of The Columnist. It set the stage with everything you could possibly want. Effortless introduction to Joe Alsop (Philip Earl Johnson) and his confidence, passions, ideas, life, and writing talent. That scene between Alsop and Andrei (Christopher Sheard) was one of those “lean in” scenes: so beautifully done that, as an audience member, you have to lean in because you just don’t want to miss a single aspect. From there, the story fell apart a bit.

Auburn tries to fit so much of Alsop’s life in this play that he’s forced to skip around a lot and the emotion of the play suffers for it. Much of the interesting action of the play happens offstage. Alsop finds out his brother is sick, finds out that JFK dies, finds out that his brother dies, and reaches the conclusion of a blackmail plot all off stage. The director (Keira Fromm) and the actors are then asked to make continuous exposition somehow interesting. It’s an impossibly tall task and, unfortunately, this production isn’t quite up to the task. 

Philip Earl Johnson (Joe Alsop), Coburn Goss (Stewart Alsop). Photo by Johnny Knight.

Much of this depends on a stellar performance from Johnson (whose role was previously played by John Lithgow). Johnson finds some nice moments—especially in the opening scene and some scenes with his brother Stewart (Coburn Goss)—but those times he’s left onstage with a one-sided phone call as the vehicle for giving the audience information suffer exponentially. Outside of occasional bright spots from Goss and Sheard, there really aren’t any other performances able to carry this uninspiring script. This play felt so much like a novel missing characterizations. There wasn’t much for the actors to really sink their teeth into. 

To the credit of this play, it does provide some interesting food for thought. It’s a very particular look at Alsop’s relationship to the president and how his fortunes changed with a change in power. It’s also a good examination of the need for press to adapt to changing times and not completely reject youth as unknowledgeable when it comes to political matters. If, like Alsop, you dig in your heels and refuse to hear the thoughts of those around you, society will move on without you.

This is a good information piece. There’s a good timeline posted on the wall outside of the theatre where you’re going to see the actual political drama of Joseph Alsop’s life. This play tries to do too much in attempting to put every major point into a documentary-style show. Most scenes devolve into pure exposition with a thin sheen of emotion, which possibly can be masked by otherworldly acting, but that’s asking more than Fromm and her actors are able to provide. 

American Blues Theater continues its 2016-2017 Season with the Chicago Premiere of The Columnist by David Auburn and directed by Keira Fromm. The Columnist runs February 17 – April 1, 2017 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. in Chicago. Tickets are available online at AmericanBluesTheater.com or by calling 773.327.5252. More information is also available at www.theatreinchicago.com.

Jerald Raymond Pierce is a journalist, stage manager, actor, director, and playwright in the Chicago area with an MA in Arts Journalism from Syracuse University and a BFA in Acting from Ohio University. He also is a contributor to American Theatre magazine and an editor for ShowSnob.com. When he’s not spending unnecessary amounts of money on sports tickets, theatre tickets, and random travels, he’s probably ranting about Doctor Who, time travel, and the general merits of current television and movie writers.