Florida Studio Theatre opened David Auburn’s “The Columnist” this past week to a packed and appreciative audience. The Pulitzer Prize and Tony-Award winner’s latest play is a fascinating look at the life of flamboyant and controversial-political columnist Joseph Alsop. Its main focus is on the halcyon, heady days of “Camelot,” following the election of John F. Kennedy, which marked the apex and the following decline of Alsop’s career.
Alsop is interesting on many levels. Although a devoutly rancorous Republican, rabidly on the McCarthy bandwagon in the ’50s, he revered the New Deal and JFK with equal passion. He is quoted in the play as declaring, “Eisenhower was like going to bed with a glass of milk and a woman in curlers.” The play elucidates Alsop’s astonishing role in American history as a major influence on the domino theory and the escalation of the Vietnam War.
Jeffrey Plunkett is sublime as Alsop, in complete control of the contradictory, extravagant facets of his character, which were numerous. A highly educated, erudite, closet homosexual who delights in playing Washington, D.C. host — down to the frilly napkins, filling his house with art and antiques and mingling with socialites. He also volunteered to fight in the war, referred to President Lyndon Johnson as a “bed-wetting, pinko, sissy boy” and is quoted as saying sarcastically, “How are the poor Negroes doing?”
Sharply directed by Kate Alexander, the production maintains an edge-of-your-seat intensity throughout. Each character is played with his own gemlike flash of truth. The remarkable cast includes John Keabler as Andrei; Rachel Moulton as Susan Mary Alsop; Robert Gomes as Stewart Alsop; Marie Claire Roussel as Abigail; Michael Zlabinger as Halberstam; and Seth Teegarden as Philip.
Brain Prather has created a serviceable scenic design, which creatively scrolls Alsop’s printed words across the backdrop, and Sarah Bertolozzi’s costume design is not only true to each decade, but also lovely to see.