When incendiary current events are leaping from your TV screen into your lap on an almost hourly basis, a play such as “The Great Society” has a tough row to hoe. How to excite audiences with history-book events when history-making events are scalding the senses in the here and now?
And that’s not the only challenge, at least in terms of popular appeal, faced by Robert Schenkkan’s expansive and engrossing if plot-packed drama about the battles fought by Lyndon B. Johnson during the years of his presidency.
This is the second part of what Schenkkan calls “The LBJ Plays,” following his Tony-winning “All the Way.” The prior play had the distinction of marking the Broadway debut of Bryan Cranston, then riding high on his “Breaking Bad” fame. Cranston chose (one presumes) not to undertake the role of LBJ in “The Great Society,” leaving Brian Cox to assume the role. Cox, currently starring in HBO’s “Succession,” is an estimable actor, and gives a performance of pugnacious ferocity that is very much the equal of Cranston’s, but a marquee star he is not.
What’s more, “The Great Society” would probably have benefited from following “All the Way” to Broadway with greater dispatch: Memories are short in our social-media-addled culture. And while bingeing is now commonplace on television, the play arrives at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre after giving audiences a rather long fast between episodes.
“The Great Society,” crisply directed as was the prior play by Bill Rauch, begins in 1965, essentially taking up just where “All the Way” left off: Johnson has won the presidency (he first ascended to it, of course, after the assassination of JFK) after a fiercely fought campaign, and is pushing to implement a series of sweeping government programs. These included ambitious legislation to end or at least diminish poverty, to upgrade public education, to press forward on Civil Rights reforms including major voting-rights legislation (the Civil Rights Act was passed at the end of the first play) and to implement a new health care system that would be known as Medicare.
As I probably don’t need to point out, the matters of substance Johnson was fighting for remain contentious issues, which certainly gives the play a sense of (rather glum) topicality. Health care is a defining issue in the 2020 presidential election, and regression that has taken place in terms of voting rights, in the wake of a 2013 Supreme Court decision to strike down part of Johnson’s Voting Rights Act, is also vitally important today.
In scenes that show the fierce politicking that Johnson was known for, we watch as the president bobs and weaves between these various legislative aims, even as he wrestles with the country’s increasing involvement in the Vietnam War, which as the years of his presidency pass becomes a grave danger to his ability to pursue his agenda: Perhaps the most striking feature of David Korins’s set, which resembles a modestly scaled congressional chamber, with actors often arrayed in pew-like rows when they are not at center stage, are the video screens at the back, which intermittently display mounting totals of American dead and wounded. (In a rather tired trope, the set gradually decays as LBJ’s fortunes fray.)
Cox, shorter and burlier than Johnson, nevertheless captures with ease the formidable power and presence the man was said to have, and his bulldog (or bulldozer) tenacity, as well as his manipulative wiles, when it came to sparring with political opponents. Particularly funny are the moments when he arm-twists his opponents by smilingly blackmailing them to heed his wishes while the press corps is watching.
And as the country is roiled by the increasingly violent reactions to the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War (“Vietnam will eat up everything I want to do domestically,” Johnson frets early on, perhaps a little too presciently) and the President is contending with various factions fighting to undermine him, Cox imbues Johnson with a weary, embattled gravity, coming to resemble one of Shakespeare’s kings upon whose head the crown lies heavy. Although his role seems somewhat less central than Cranston’s Johnson was in “All the Way” — mostly to make greater room, justifiably, for the complexities of the Civil Rights Movement — Cox provides the play with a forceful emotional center.
The play is a bit top-heavy with subplots, and unlike in “All the Way,” which had a more cogent narrative arc, the diffuseness of its storyline can become a little overwhelming, as the play shifts gears with such unavoidable frequency. The effect is like having the channel changed just when you’ve reached a major twist in the plot. (It’s telling that major events that come late in the play, such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, are merely mentioned in passing in a final coda.) And, while Johnson himself is drawn in colorful strokes, with his country-boy gift for a pungent tall tale, too many of the lesser characters seem to be reading from talking points to push the story forward. The fine actor Richard Thomas, for instance, in the thankless role of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, often steps in to narrate events that cannot be staged, or to simply play devil’s advocate to Johnson.
Among the most potently engaging passages are those devoted to the events in Selma, Ala., where a peaceful march becomes a virtual battleground, with King (a staunch, affecting Grantham Coleman, even when Schenkkan piles on the eloquent speechifying) attempting to make peace between various factions of the Civil Rights crusaders (notably the more confrontation-minded Stokely Carmichael, played by Marchánt Davis). Meanwhile, the state’s notoriously racist Gov. George Wallace (the excellent David Garrison, who also plays an aptly conniving but not cartoonish Richard Nixon, among other characters) marshals his forces to violently thwart the march.
The cast, even when given minimal stage time to shape their characters, is largely terrific, with Marc Kudisch excelling as the aggressive Chicago Mayor Richard Daley; Bryce Pinkham supplying Kennedy with just the right combination of righteousness and ambition; and the veteran Frank Wood neatly differentiating his four small roles. Unfortunately, the cast of 19 is too large to single out each performer.
As Johnson comes under increasing fire for the country’s growing involvement in the Vietnam War, even Johnson’s almost unmatched political skills become blunted weapons, as the tide of history and popular opinion turn against him. In one poignant scene we see Cox’s LBJ wandering the halls of the White House brooding over letters he insists on himself writing to the families of soldiers killed in Vietnam. It’s a pointed contrast to the LBJ of the early scenes, tearing around the stage with the force of a hurricane, until gradually even his formidable combativeness begins to wane.
For all his grudge-bearing, his near-paranoia and his sometimes dubiously ethical politicking, Schenkkan’s warts-aplenty Johnson, brought to sharp-elbowed and ultimately moving life by Cox, comes across as a man of integrity, even nobility — as well as subterranean compassion. His decision not to seek a second run for the presidency echoes as an act of both practical politics, but also of sad sacrifice: A hugely ambitious and even egotistical man, he nevertheless put the greater good of the country ahead of his own personal and political aspirations.
“The Great Society” opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre on Tues., Oct. 1, 2019.
Creative: Written by Robert Schenkkan; Music by Paul James Prendergast; Directed by Bill Rauch; Scenic Design by David Korins; Costume Design by Linda Cho; Lighting Design by David Weiner; Sound Design by Paul James Prendergast and Marc Salzberg; Projection Design by Victoria Sagady.
Producers: Jeffrey Richards, Louise L. Gund, Rebecca Gold, Jayne Baron Sherman, Stephanie P. McClelland, Cynthia Stroum, Jennifer Manocherian/Judith Manocherian, Gabrielle Palitz/Cheryl Wiesenfeld, Mark Pigott KBE, Ted Snowdon, Marianne Mills, DeRoy-Schmookler Productions, ShadowCatcher Entertainment, Jacob Soroken Porter and Lincoln Center Theater.
Cast: Brian Cox, Grantham Coleman, Marc Kudisch, Richard J. Daley, Bryce Pinkham, Richard Thomas, Frank Wood, Gordon Clapp, Marchánt Davis, Ted Deasy, Brian Dykstra, Barbara Garrick, David Garrison, Ty Jones, Robyn Kerr, Christopher Livingston, Angela Pierce, Matthew Rauch, Nikkole Salter, Tramell Tillman.