One thing playwright David Auburn got when he won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award more than a decade ago was a joyous sense of freedom. “Oh, it freed me to write exactly the kind of thing I wanted to write and have the luxury of knowing it would get a hearing. I feel very fortunate about that, and I don’t know how long it’ll last, but it’s a hell of a blessing.”
His first full-length play, Skyscraper, ran Off-Broadway in 1997. His second play produced in New York (yes, second) was Proof, the 2001 Tony- and Pulitzer-winning four-character story about three mathematicians (one of them dead) and a Type-A sister. It launched Auburn’s career when he was 31.
Auburn’s The Columnist, which the Manhattan Theatre Club opened on Broadway in April, 2012, ran for two months. It starred John Lithgow; Daniel Sullivan directed. This week LA Theatre Works presents a new production of it in the form of five audio-recorded performances in front of audiences at UCLA.
The early acclaim for Auburn meant that he could write a play about a dead journalist, Joseph Alsop, and it would get a hearing. “I also knew it would probably get produced with wonderful actors who would take it seriously,” he says.
The play features David Krumholtz (Numb3rs; he stepped out of CTG’s 2013 production of The Sunshine Boys early in rehearsals), Wilson Bethel (Hart of Dixie, The Young and the Restless), JoBeth Williams (Other Desert Cities at CTG in 2012) and John Vickery (Star Trek, Babylon 5, etc.) as Joseph Alsop.
A KGB set-up
The play opens in a Moscow hotel room in the late 1950s. Alsop, a closeted homosexual who marries a woman, has been set up by the KGB for a tryst with a Russian man. The play follows the next 10 years of Alsop’s life.
Auburn is directing this production. As he nurses an India pale ale in a Westwood hotel after his first rehearsal, he says The Columnist uses Alsop’s life “as a way to look at American involvement in Vietnam, the changing role of the press through that period, especially compared with today. It’s also about how the private life of a very controversial figure impacted his public statements and the work he did. And that, in turn, had an impact on national and international policy.”
Auburn was coming out of his celebratory period over Proof when he realized how little he knew of the Vietnam era.
“I started reading to try to educate myself. The name Alsop kept popping up in the press, in memoirs. I’d never heard of him. I learned he was not exactly a household name these days, but a very well known and influential journalist of the time.”
The play came out of wondering how that happened — how do you go from being at the center of power and influence and shaping world affairs to becoming first, a joke, and then, a forgotten figure?
At his prime, Alsop wore dark-framed, round glasses, his hair combed straight back. Although he was a registered Republican, “he had President Kennedy coming to his house on inauguration night for drinks, to relax. He was someone who felt perfectly comfortable calling up Lyndon Johnson, telling him what to do, how to set up the Warren Commission. Johnson tried to get a word in edgewise; Alsop was happy to interrupt and talk over him.”
How did Alsop fade from America’s consciousness? “I think the short answer is Vietnam. He was a very strident, pro-war voice, very hawkish. As more and more people came to see the war as a terrible mistake, he clung even more tenaciously to his perspective. That turned him into a joke.”
But as a syndicated newspaper columnist born in 1910, Alsop wielded a nation-shaping voice for decades. Think Walter Winchell. “Another factor just has to do with the way newspapers changed. In the ’50s and ’60s and into the ’70s, there really were just three or four or five journalists who could shape national opinion with everything they wrote,” Auburn says. “That changed. It’s certainly not true anymore.”
What is true, however, is the surge of pundits and bloggers through online media. “Was it better then? Or worse? Alsop considered himself a reporter. His columns weren’t just opinion; they were carefully crafted and reported.”
Proof opens in the present day and twice in its two acts goes back a few years. The Columnist, by contrast, is told in a straightforward, linear fashion. “The first scene with Joe and the man in the Moscow hotel room shadows his whole career. I put that in different places when I first started writing drafts, but I realized it needed to be the first thing we see. We need to live with the knowledge of it, just as Joe tries to push it away or pretend it never happened…The play speculates that the pressure was part of what radicalized him and what caused him to have such an extreme and inflexible political perspective.”
Some pieces of the play came quickly and some took a lot longer, he says. “The biggest thing I struggled with was how big the play should be and how much I should take in. At first I thought maybe it should be very tightly focused on one dinner party — something he liked to give — or, maybe one or two instances. But there were so many interesting episodes in his life over so many years.”
Auburn found those episodes revealed so many sides of Alsop that he wanted to cast the net wider and have something more panoramic. Now the play covers a decade, from the late 1950s to the late ’60s. Alsop ages and changes over the course of it.
“Yeah, it’s a history play,” Auburn says. “It goes into areas that aren’t in the historical record like the private sides of their lives. But I wanted it to be very historically grounded and where the facts are known, this play lines up with the facts. It takes a couple of liberties. Things like Stewart [Alsop, Joseph's brother and fellow columnist], who’s Joe’s foil in the play and, I think, in real life. He dies earlier in the play than he did in real life. I wanted his death to coincide with the greatest turmoil in the ’60s in Joe’s life, for dramatic reasons.”
Also, Alsop’s wife, Susan Mary, played by Williams. “He married her in 1960 and she had children from a previous marriage” (she was also related to Theodore Roosevelt). “I refer to Joe’s stepdaughter, called Abigail in the play. She’s a composite character made up of Joe’s real life stepchildren.”
Auburn was childless when he wrote Proof. He now has two daughters, 7 and 11. The father-daughter tie (or in The Columnist, the father-stepdaughter tie) keeps cropping up in his work.
“When I see productions of Proof now, that’s the thing I find the most compelling, that theme of parents and children, those bonds.”
From idea to stage to screen
The Tony and Pulitzer aside, a playwright still has to come up with fresh ideas, fill his or her head with whatever background knowledge applies, develop characters and write the story before it ever sees the light of day. Does he write now with the glitz visible in the rear view mirror? “Having a hit is fantastic. Everyone likes to have hits. I would be disingenuous if I said I was only striving for artistic satisfaction.”
Auburn grew up in Arkansas and Ohio. He received his undergrad degree at the University of Chicago in 1991, in a city where he and his friends figured the Steppenwolf model made sense. “You formed a little theater company and did your plays. We did this for a while there and in New York” — where Auburn followed some friends and accidentally learned one day that Juilliard was starting a new program for playwrights. He got in at the age of 25 and became one of four resident playwrights who studied under Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang.
Asked whether there is a downside to winning pinnacle awards, particularly just a few years out of Juilliard, Auburn says, “To the extent that it sets up certain expectations that are going to be impossible to meet, yeah. But the upside is so great, it would be foolish to complain about any downside.”
Auburn followed the stage production of Proof with a screenplay of it. But a good play does not necessarily make for a good film. “I think this material lives most comfortably on stage and it’s a little awkward fit in the movies. I like the performances in the movie and am glad there’s a record of Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins performing those scenes, along with those with Hope Davis and Gwyneth.”
His screenplay, in fact, was less like the play than the final film became. “When they were shooting the movie, I think [director] John Madden took sections from the play and filmed them more directly than what my screenplay had called for. I haven’t seen it since it came out in 2004 or 5, so I don’t remember it all that well.”
With each new play he writes, Auburn relies on his brain trust. “My wife puts up with a lot of ranting during early drafts. Mostly I try to hold off until I have a draft where at least I know why I’ve made the choices I’ve made, even if they’re not the right choices.”
He relies on friends, directors and colleagues. “People I can read to or who can read things and tell me if I’m on the right track or not. I love that process. You finish and you go through a period thinking it’s shit and then you have a reading and think maybe it’s not so bad and you go back and forth.”
His wife is not in show business. “And every Friday morning I have breakfast with a group of guys. One is in show business and the others aren’t, whatever that says. I just feel lucky that I get to follow my impulses and write what I want to write and get a hearing for it. If it clicks with people, then great, and if it doesn’t, I’ll get on to the next thing.”
The next thing for him is his first two-character play, Lost Lake. “I started it in January and had a workshop at the Eugene O’Neill Center over the summer. We’ll do another in Illinois and then we’ll do it in New York after that. It doesn’t have a cast yet.”
That his wife and daughters are on the opposite coast this week is bittersweet for Auburn. He misses them, of course, but he also gets more work done. It is one way his writing style has evolved over the past decade.
“Since I’ve had kids — and I wish it weren’t true — but I work less consistently on a day-to-day basis. More of my work gets done in chunks when I’m away from home.”
Also coming up, he hopes to seize more opportunities to direct. In 2007 he helmed his own screenplay for the film The Girl in the Park.
Auburn remains philosophical. “I don’t expect to have another play that’s as commercially successful as Proof, certainly. And I assume it’ll be the first line in my obituary. That’s fine; I like the play. I had a lot of fun writing it. That’s show business.”
The Columnist, James Bridges Theater on the UCLA campus in Melnitz Hall, 235 Charles E. Young Drive, LA 90095. Opens tonight. Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 pm and 8 pm, Sun 4 pm. Nov. 14-17. Tickets: $50. http://www.latw.org/. 310-827-0889.