As Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society begins pulling you back back back to a cultural moment that rivals our own in meanness, division and barrel-scraping crumminess, Brian Cox would seem to have the toughest job on Broadway. Portraying the accidental president who succeeded the martyred one only to land waste deep in one big muddy after another, Cox must convince his audience that he can match, hog-tie and serve up like so much barbecue a personality as big as the Lone Star State itself.
I mean, just imagine having to follow Bryan Cranston.
If you’ve seen HBO’s robust Succession, you already know Cox seems up for just about any challenge tossed his way, including the role of Lyndon Baines Johnson in the second of Schenkkan’s two-part bio-drama. The first installment, All The Way, debuted on Broadway in 2014, winning Cranston a Tony Award for his uncanny performance as LBJ; a subsequent HBO adaptation earned the actor an Emmy nomination.
Now Cox, who in a fortunate (for us) matter of timing also is playing Succession‘s aging, grasping old billionaire sinner Logan Roy, aptly described by Vulture as “an unholy combination of Rupert Murdoch, Walt Disney, and Sumner Redstone,” gets his turn at LBJ as The Great Society picks up where All The Way left off: LBJ’s landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 is law – and, as is the way of all achievements, barely mentioned as one new challenge after another presents itself, proving that even historic triumphs quickly become just that: history.
Now the president must either meet, or fail to meet, an ever-taller wall of new contests, from the violent racial confrontations in flashpots like Selma, Alabama, and Watts, California to the rise of the race-baiting, constituent-stealing, law & order-espousing flim-flam man who would all too soon take Johnson’s seat behind the desk of the Oval Office.
But most detrimental to LBJ’s ambitions of a Great Society in which playing fields are somewhat level, voting booths open to all and running water and electricity stretches to even the poorest reaches of the country is the war in Vietnam. As Victoria Sagady’s projections remind us all too frequently, the numbers of dead and wounded begin to rise, and then rise fast. So too do the number of troops and staggering sums of money Johnson can’t seem to resist throwing at the trouble spot, diverting and dashing his dreams (and the public’s money) for a land of promise and equality. Cox’s increasingly obsessed LBJ will not, as the character says in the real man’s famous phrase, be the American president who loses Southeast Asia.
With a massive cast of several dozen characters that includes Martin Luther King Jr. (Grantham Coleman), Robert F. Kennedy (Bryce Pinkham), Hubert Humphrey (Richard Thomas), Robert McNamara (Matthew Rauch), J. Edgar Hoover (Gordon Clapp), Lady Bird Johnson (Barbara Garrick) and Stokely Carmichae (Marchant Davis) – to name just a fraction – The Great Society unfolds on a multifunctional set (designed by David Korins) much like the one used in All The Way. A central, in-the-round stage is, with a few well-appointed bits of Oval Office furniture and the floor marked by a projected Presidential seal, is surrounded by a semi-circle of Congressional benches, the whole shebang occasionally morphing, with the invaluable assistance of Sagady’s projections, into churches, outdoor rallies and even, at one point, Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge spanning Selma and Montgomery, site of the Civil Rights stand-off that encapsulated the era.
And onto the stage come the players, a parade of them, more than 50 (played by a cast of 19), each ushering himself (and they are mostly hims) into the spotlight and Johnson’s orbit to deliver the bits assigned by history. The fluidity with which director Bill Rauch – returning from All The Way – presents this march of time is never short of impressive, often near miraculous, jarring when necessary (the Southern focus shifts to the urban tinderbox of Watts with the shock of a slap).
But like All The Way, The Great Society often feels like historical shorthand, never more so than when the increasingly guilt-ridden and tormented Defense Secretary MacNamarra periodically arrives to provide Johnson and his veep Humphrey with the latest depressing news from the front. Credit Rauch with fleshing out his character when time and Schenkkan’s exposition-heavy script meet him only halfway.
And Schenkkan’s telling, while necessarily concise, offers few, if any, surprises. Each character and development is no more or less than what anyone with a passing understanding of the age – or a passing grade from first-year college history class – will anticipate. The Reverend King is solid, admirable and resistant to the incendiary Black Power leanings of younger firebrands like Carmichael. George Wallace (David Garrison) is the embodiment of New South racism, and Humphrey is simplified to a sort of Oval Office Jiminy Cricket, a voice of reason and conscience forever warning the rock-and-a-hard-place Johnson about the dangers of war and the pitfalls of veering from campaign promises.
The character short-hand is hard to fault too strongly, though, given how much story Schenkkan has to cram in. Boiling each personage down to a dominant trait or two is no cakewalk.
Less easy to overlook is Schenkkan’s kid-gloves treatment of his hero – a tragic hero, but his hero nonetheless. Even with Jiminy Humphrey on his shoulder reminding him – and us – of what he should be doing, this tortured LBJ makes even the worst decisions seem understandable, if not exactly palatable. Bad judgment of historical immensity too often comes across as no-good-options decision-making, and while other characters – George Wallace, Everett Dirksen, J. Edgar Hoover – are presented as the villains or fools they were, Schenkkan rarely affords Johnson anything less than the best of intentions. This Johnson is the victim of his own original sin – the compromises he makes on a war he doesn’t want to secure a Great Society he does.
Still, as tragic flaws go, the war in Vietnam is a doozy.
But only once does The Great Society fall to outright cringey caricature, and you can probably guess when, or rather who. The late-in-the-evening moment comes when a certain new Oval Office occupant arrives for a White House walk-through, all jowly and slicked-back hair, ski-slope nose and victory-sign posing. Perhaps it’s impossible to play Nixon without seeming like a cartoon (David Garrison is better in his other role as an equally slimy Gov. George Wallace), and so maybe The Great Society would have been better off skipping Tricky Dicky altogether, giving LBJ a better send-off than the one afforded him in life. Wouldn’t do the audience any harm either.
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