This past week I attended three productions that were dramatizations of the lives of real people. On Tuesday, I saw "The Columnist," a play by David Auburn about Joe Alsop, the syndicated columnist who wielded outsize influence in the 1950s and 1960s. On Thursday, I saw "End of the Rainbow," a play by Peter Quilter, about Judy Garland's December 1968 visit to London to perform a series of concerts in an attempted comeback from drug and alcohol addiction. And on Friday morning, I attended a mid-day screening of "Mahler on the Couch," a German film directed by Percy Adlon, with script by Percy and Felix Adlon, about Gustav Mahler's consultation with Sigmund Freud during a crisis in Mahler's marriage.
Each of these productions had strengths and weaknesses, but all three impressed me as interesting attempts to capture the personalities of people who made a difference in the world but suffered terribly from various kinds of emotional instability, insecurity, and the brave projection of superiority. And each provided a vehicle for some incredible acting. John Lithgow as Joe Alsop created a memorably despicable character, a closeted gay man who marries a widowed mother of a teenage girl as a "cover" and insurance against blackmail generated by his indiscretion with a Russian agent while on assignment in Moscow. Tracie Bennett does an incredible, over-the-top job impersonating Garland shortly before her drug overdose death, as she struggled with her demons to keep her concert commitment in London. And Johannes Silberschneider creates a memorable Mahler – at least for me, if not for The Times' critic.
Each of these leading characters is surrounding by a strong supporting cast in a very well-done production.
In "The Columnist," we get a convincing Washington, D.C., study as our setting for most of the drama, and excellent support from Margaret Colin as Alsop's wife, Boyd Gaines as his brother Stewart, Stephen Kunken as his journalistic antagonist on the issue of the Vietnam War, David Halberstam, and Brian J. Smith as the Russian "tour guide" who entraps him in the indiscretion that will haunt him throughout his career. In "End of the Rainbow," most of the action takes place in the grand room of a London hotel suite; Tom Pelphrey is stunning as Garland's last boyfriend who struggles to keep her off pills and alcohol until it become obvious that she can't function without them, and Michael Cumpsty is winning as the gay pianist/music director for her show who goes far beyond the call of duty to get her through the ordeal. In "Mahler on the Couch," apparently shot in the actual locations where much of the plot unfolded, Karl Markovics is a playful Freud, Barbara Romaner an enticing Alma Schindler, but to me the most enticing of the supporting players is Friedrich Mucke as the glamorous young architect, Walter Gropius, whose affair with Alma ignites the crisis that leads Mahler to Freud.
Despite all this talent on display (and excellent cinematography in the Mahler film), there are weaknesses in the scripts that undermine the effectiveness of the productions. "The Columnist" is very talky at times and drags in the first act. "End of the Rainbow" is full of histrionics, and at times I felt that Ms. Bennett's Garland becomes cartoonishly exaggerated – but her singing saves the day! Finally, the Mahler film seems overly simplistic in "diagnosing" the composer's mental and family problems. Despite these flaws, however, I found the sequence of biographical productions to be generally stimulating, entertaining, and worth the time I spent.
I would especially recommend that anybody interested in the Mahler film HURRY to see it (at Lincoln Center Film Society) since films of this sort tend to have short runs – although I've no doubt it will become available on DVD before too long.