Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 1, 2019
The Great Society by Robert Schenkkan. Directed by Bill Rauch. Scenic design by David Korins. Costume design by Linda Cho. Lighting design by David Weiner. Music by Paul James Prendergast. Sound design by Paul James Prendergast and Marc Salzberg. Hair and wig design by Tom Watson. Cast: Brian Cox, Marc Kudisch, Bryce Pinkham, Frank Wood, Gordon Clapp, Merchant Davis, Brian Dykstra, Barbara Garrick, David Garrison, Ty Jones, Christopher Livingston, Angela Pierce, Matthew Rauch, Nikkole Salter, Tramell Tillman, Ted Deasy, Robyn Kerr, JaBen Early, Christopher McHale, Nancy Rodriguez, Grantham Coleman, and Richard Thomas.
The Great Society picks up where Schenkkan's previous LBJ play, the 2014 Tony-winning All The Way, left off. With Johnson's swearing-in following President Kennedy's assassination, the will of the country was behind him. And at the end of that term in office, he was elected in a landslide to serve another four years. Those years, from 1965 to 1969, are the focus of The Great Society. They represent some of the country's most tumultuous times, and audience members who are old enough to remember them are able to fill in the many holes that Schenkkan has left in the script. Younger theatergoers, at least those who are not students of history, will have to ask their elders to explain what has been merely sketched in, while those who were there will be able to feed off the jeer-worthy villains and the one hero who emerges from the densely-packed yet puzzlingly flatly-acted production.
The play defines the villains of the piece as two of the architects of the Vietnam War, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Matthew Rauch) and U. S. Army General William Westmoreland (Brian Dykstra), along with Communist-obsessed and power-hungry FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Gordon Clapp), and the racism-spewing Governor of Alabama, George Wallace (David Garrison). I'll get to the play's heroic center in a bit, but let me say this: Despite a vigorous and filibuster-styled performance by Brian Cox as LBJ, it isn't Lyndon Johnson.
Cox, an actor with a long accolade-filled career on stage and in films, isn't necessarily wrong for the part. But his performance here is pretty much one-note, in which he generally declaims his lines at a frenetic bellow. It is only during the play's final segment, as a broken LBJ has a quiet moment with his wife Lady Bird (Barbara Garrick), that he shows the kind of acting that comes from deep within.
This is what has hitherto been missing not only in Cox's performance, but in the performances of pretty much everyone on the very busy stage (nearly two dozen actors playing more than three dozen roles). This includes such fine actors as Marc Kudisch, Richard Thomas, Frank Wood, and Bryce Pinkham. I've got to assume that director Bill Rauch has encouraged the generally deflated line readings all around. And things are not helped by the efforts by some to mimic mannerisms and speech patterns of the individuals they portray; Pinkham's Boston-ish accent as Robert Kennedy and David Garrison's exaggerated and laughter-inducing impersonation of Richard Nixon simply do not work within the context of the production.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the writing is that Robert Schenkkan has attempted to pack far too much into a single work. A focus on the Civil Rights struggle, with LBJ as a supporting character, would make for a very strong play, as would the story of the Vietnam War. But because these are smashed into a single play, and because Johnson is placed in the center, everything is given short shrift. For a far richer depiction of the former, you'd be better off watching the 2014 film "Selma." As for Vietnam, it took documentary filmmaker Ken Burns 18 hours to tell that story in the 10-part PBS series "The Vietnam War." But here, these extraordinarily significant events of U. S. history are nearly trivialized, and the shortcut use of images projected on the stage's back wall is a poor substitute for theatrical storytelling.
In any other situation, Lyndon Johnson's contributions to American life as he envisioned it would be his everlasting memorial: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the War of Poverty, Medicare and Medicaid, to name the not-so-shabby highlights. Johnson was a brilliant politician who used a combination of charm, blackmail, and arm-twisting to push these monumental pieces of legislation through Congress. But his inability to understand that he could not control or set the timing of the course of history left him with the taunt "hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" ringing in his ears as he threw in the towel and declared in perhaps his most memorable televised broadcast: "I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president." Unfortunately, this play fails to find a theatrical way to capture this breathtakingly consequential time in U. S. history.