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Closeted Columnist

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Joseph Alsop is the subject of a play by the author of ‘Proof.’
by Donalevan Maines
Photo by Trevor B. Cone

In the first scene of David Auburn’s 2012 Broadway play The Columnist, it’s 1954 and powerful American political columnist Joe Alsop is reveling in the afterglow of tricking with a young Russian in a Moscow hotel room.

Free in America?: John Kaiser (standing) as Joseph Alsop and Reid Self as his brother, Stewart, star in The Columnist at Theatre Southwest.
Free in America?: John Kaiser (standing) as Joseph Alsop and Reid Self as his brother, Stewart, star in The Columnist at Theatre Southwest.

The Young Man asks Joe, “Are you free in America? More than here?”

“Oh my God, yes,” says Joe. “Are you joking?”

“I mean, about this,” asks the Young Man.

“Oh. No. With that it’s much the same,” says Joe.

In other words, being gay meant “don’t ask, don’t tell, mum’s the word” in both “the evil empire” and “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Alsop, so conditioned to hide his sexual orientation, hid his head in the sand when it came to oppression in his own backyard.

The production of The Columnist at Theatre Southwest follows tightly wound Alsop through the Cold War’s turbulent 1960s as he maintains a platonic marriage with a woman in affluent Georgetown and spins his column to support right-wing attacks on commie sympathizers and hippies—“youth running riot in the streets, naked and stoned out of their minds.”

Director Malinda Beckham, who’s read everything she can find about Alsop, says, “I think one of his greatest regrets in life was that he never found a lifelong partner.”

His deepest relationship was with his younger, weaker brother, Stewart, she explains. They co-wrote a syndicated newspaper column called “Matter of Fact” from 1945 until 1958, when Stewart stepped out of Joe’s hawkish shadow. Alsop continued writing the column for a dwindling readership until he retired (along with Richard Nixon) in 1974.

John Lithgow was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play when The Columnist debuted on Broadway. Tony winner Boyd Gaines played Stewart, and handsome Brian J. Smith was Andrei, the Young Man in the opening scene, who makes a surprise return in a scene on the Mall in Washington DC in the summer of 1968. The Allen-born actor from Gossip Girl, who played a closeted gay character in Good Boys and True at Second Stage in New York, is a contender for this year’s Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Play as The Gentleman Caller in the critically hailed revival of the Tennessee Williams classic The Glass Menagerie.

John Kaiser plays Joe Alsop at Theatre Southwest, with Reid Self as Stewart, Adam Richardson as Andrei, and Mykle McCoslin, Emma Yarrow, and Scott McWhirter.

Joseph Alsop in 1986.
Joseph Alsop in 1986.

Beckham says she made her directing debut at Theatre Southwest with Laura and a cast that included Lance Marshall, who appeared in a number of gay plays in Houston before moving last year to New York City with his husband, James Oxford. “I had gone to see a production at Theatre Southwest of Bug by Tracy Letts, and Lance was so terrific,” explains Beckham. “So I went after Lance to come and audition for my play.” Beckham notes that there was gay content regarding the father in Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Proof, in which she starred as Catherine several years ago at Theatre Southwest.

Three years ago, Theatre Southwest presented Breaking the Code, which is about gay mathematician Alan Turing, who saved the world from Hitler and the Nazi Party by breaking the German Enigma code and deciphering German U-boat attack plans during World War II. Despite his accomplishments, he was convicted on charges of “gross indecency” in 1952 and committed suicide two years later at age 41. On December 24 last year, the New York Times reported, “Nearly 60 years after his death, Alan Turing, the British mathematician regarded as one of the central figures in the development of the computer, received a formal pardon from Queen Elizabeth II on Monday for his conviction in 1952 on charges of homosexuality, at the time a criminal offense in Britain.”

What: The Columnist
When: February 21–March 15
Where: Theatre Southwest, 8944-A, Clarkcrest St.
Tickets/info: 713.661.9505 or www.theatresouthwest.org.

Donalevan Maines also writes about the Oscars in this issue of OutSmart.

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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