By: Isa Goldberg
November 14, 2019: Given the state of political gridlock, and partisan politics we’re in, Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society – Part II of The LBJ Plays, is a timely production, currently at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beautmont Theater. Set during LBJ’s administration, Schenkkan expounds on Part I of his work, All The Way, which played on Broadway starring Bryan Cranston in 2014.
Here Brian Cox portrays Lyndon Johnson. Cox, known for his portrayal of King Lear with The Royal Shakespeare Company is something of a celebrity currently, for his role as a bastardly media mogul on HBO’s Succession. An actor accustomed to playing powerful, albeit tragically flawed characters, Cox brings a kind of quotidian ease to this enormous role. Still, he drives this impactful show with urgency, achieving the sense of volition which characterized President Johnson’s administration. Here, as in history, one can see how much LBJ got done. And to a greater extent, how he became undone.
In All The Way we met Johnson in his first year in office, smiling, greeting, and playing the good old boys network of friends and foes, with enormous gusto. It ends after his first year in office, with the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. In The Great Society, Schenkkan examines more closely the political environment of Johnson’s administration from 1965 on, with all of its damning consequences.
Both the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement take center stage. Projections (Victoria Sagady) from news reportage of the ‘60s bring the story home to us in the audience, just as they did for TV viewers of the time. Most noteworthy, a ticker above the stage counts the death toll in Vietnam. By the end of Johnson’s administration in 1968, where the play ends, the ticker count reads 38,620 American dead in Vietnam, and 192,616 wounded.
The setting by David Korins, is basically the same as in All The Way, an open playing area that looks like Congress Hall with bull pens – benches and wooden chairs for the actors waiting in the background. By the end of the play, however, the stage has been torn down, leaving just a set of stairs.
To open this historical drama, Cox (Johnson) tells an inspirational story about the triumph of a rodeo cowboy. We get a quick glimpse of the man, before the narrative turns quickly to his Congressional address. “The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all! It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice. We need a program to ensure every American child a quality education. We need a national health insurance plan for our seniors. We need a national effort to improve our inner cities and we need the elimination of every remaining obstacle to the right and the opportunity to VOTE!”
That debate continues to rage. We hear it in the Democratic Presidential debates currently on television. Indeed, Bill Rauch, who also directed All The Way, drives the production with a sense of moral purpose about living in our democracy. That it is driven by the people, and that participation is our responsibility.
The well-honed cast includes Richard Thomas as Hubert Humphrey. The Vice President who stood by Johnson’s side looks haggardly at the world. His defeat by Richard Nixon, in the 1968 presidential race marks the end of the play.
It’s an imposing cast. Grantham Coleman’s insightful portrayal of Martin Luther King, Merchant Davis as a threatening Stokely Carmichael give stand out performances. Broadway stalwarts, Bryce Pinkham as Robert F. Kennedy, Barbara Garrick as Lady Bird, and Marc Kudish and Frank Wood in a variety of roles keep the intense pace of history marching.
The Great Society ***1/2
Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center
150 W. 65th St., NYC.
Mon—Tue 7pm, Wed 1pm & 7pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm.
Running time: two hours and 40 mins. including intermission. $99—$159. (212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com.
October 1 – November 30th, 2019
Photography: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade