‘By the way,” the magazine journalist says to the newspaper reporter two decades his junior. “Congratulations. On the Prize.”
“It’s all downhill from here,” the reporter replies.
“I doubt that very much,” the older man says. “I’ve always . . . coveted it.”
It’s a simple exchange, and in someone else’s play it might slip by unnoticed. But in David Auburn’s “The Columnist,” this moment between two characters from relatively recent history — Stewart Alsop, of The Saturday Evening Post, and the young David Halberstam, of The New York Times — is overlaid with poignancy. Halberstam was a mere 30 years old when, in 1964, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam War reporting. Auburn was just 31 when, in 2001, he won a Pulitzer for his hit Broadway play, “Proof,” about a mathematical genius who fears she has inherited her father’s mental illness along with his brilliance.
The prolific Halberstam didn’t disappear from view after his Pulitzer, but Auburn largely receded for years from the playwriting scene. Now, returning to Broadway for the first time since “Proof” closed in 2003, he is a more mature dramatist, a smoother craftsman, a more evenhandedly empathetic observer of human behavior. “The Columnist,” a torn-from-the-obits tale of journalism, politics, and personal compromise in mid-20th-century America, is a quieter work than “Proof,” and less intellectually glittering, but it is also more solidly made, and often witheringly funny.
Its title character is Stewart Alsop’s older brother and sometime collaborator, the widely syndicated newspaper columnist Joseph Alsop. Harvard-educated, related to the Roosevelts on Eleanor’s side, he uses his power-player status in the nation’s capital as both weapon and bauble. When “The Columnist” opens on a postcoital tableau, the vehement anti-communist is in a Moscow hotel room in 1954 with a Russian named Andrei, who’d like someday to visit Washington.
“It’s my territory. Everyone knows me, everyone fears me,” Joe says, by way of impressing him.
From that first scene, which ends with a knock on the door from the KGB, there is plenty of cruelty, betrayal, and maddening behavior in “The Columnist.” Much of it emanates from Joe, a man who routinely torments his brother; uses emotional sadism as a bludgeon against his intelligent, socially invaluable wife, Susan; and thinks nothing of phoning Halberstam’s editor to try to get the reporter pulled off the Vietnam War beat. But Auburn never offers us the easy out of a villain to root against, the way he did with the coldly brisk older sister, Claire, in “Proof.” Rather, he makes us feel Joe’s loneliness, credit his kindnesses, and warm to his convivial magnetism — the quality that draws a reveling President Kennedy to his home in the wee hours of inauguration night, after the balls are through.
Auburn has changed some details of the Alsops’ lives, and rejiggered the chronology somewhat in constructing his airtight plot, but the part about inauguration night? True.
Last year, Auburn had a play off-Broadway: his adaptation of Langdon Mitchell’s little-known 1906 farce, “The New York Idea.” Set at the turn of the 20th century, it’s a breezy trifle about divorce, remarriage, and the importance of feeling what the play calls a “whim” for someone before signing on for life with him. Joe, however, is a denizen of a world in which it would take extreme bravery for a gay man to act publicly on such a feeling. When, in 1967, someone tells him that his sexual orientation is “really not that big a thing,” it rings horribly false.
But for the most part, “The Columnist” retains its time-capsule feel. Working within the restrictions of what once was conventional thought, it shows us what mainstream America used to be afraid of — gay rights, women’s rights, creeping communism — frequently to disastrous effect.
And, of course, it shows us what we didn’t even know to worry about. “How many newspapers do you have in America?” Andrei, the young Muscovite, asks Joe in that first scene. “Every major city has five or six,” Joe tells him. “It’s one of our great strengths.”