Review: As Anatomy of a Presidency, The Great Society Is No Revelation

The play is too overstuffed and too easily distracted to say anything profound or potent about its subject matter.

The Great Society
Photo: Evan Zimmerman

“The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro,” President Lyndon B. Johnson declared before Congress in March 1965. And it’s a crucial line in Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society, especially as delivered by Brian Cox at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. So, if Johnson himself knew that to be true, why doesn’t the playwright? Schenkkan’s second drama about LBJ—following All the Way—devotes most of its nearly three-hour running time to the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s but barely any of its attention to the impact of national events on the lives of the people fighting for their freedom.

All the Way, which starred Bryan Cranston, kept its focus tight, covering only the first year of Johnson’s presidency. That play zeroed in on the politically expedient and morally pressing tightrope that LBJ walked in pushing the Civil Rights Act through Congress while securing his own presidential future in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The sprawling sequel, meanwhile, with its 19 actors playing nearly 40 characters, hurtles through the next four years (1965 to 1968) at an exhausting speed that never lets up. The Great Society is about pre-Nixonian politics and Johnson’s jumbled judgment in Vietnam and the Voting Rights Act and the core years of the civil rights movement, but it’s ultimately too overstuffed and too easily distracted to say anything profound or potent about any of those topics.

Schenkkan recognizes that the civil rights movement and the formation of the Black Power movement were—along with Bloody Sunday, the Watts riots in Los Angeles, and the March Without Fear—among the formative events of the mid-’60s. Director Bill Rauch dutifully reenacts each of them on stage, complete with projected historical footage. But the players in each of these scenes, especially the inciting incident in Watts which ends the play’s first act, are usually anonymous, except for the few Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) leaders whose personhoods are gestured at but never developed. Luckily, there are particularly strong performances from Grantham Coleman as Martin Luther King Jr. and Marchánt Davis as Stokely Carmichael (as well as John Lewis). It’s not their fault that The Great Society contributes little that’s new or different in its dutifully dignified depictions of these political figureheads.

Not that Johnson and his circle of allies, foes, and frenemies are well fleshed out either. In the central role, Cox, while compellingly vigorous and foul-mouthed throughout the play, never quite transcends Schenkkan’s assemblage of free-floating traits associated with LBJ. In trying to illustrate the ultimate incompatibility between Johnson’s behind-the-scenes legislative work and King’s massively public demonstrations, The Great Society leaves the president doing an awful lot of reacting, a commentator on the real action.

All the Way managed to capture Johnson before he became crippled by compromise, and The Great Society blanches at coming down too hard on the president, even when he turns against King and then the American anti-war efforts, raging, “You need to kill more Vietcong!” David Korins’s courtroom-like set slowly crumbles across the course of the play to symbolize, well, what exactly? Is it Johnson’s presidency? The trust between Johnson and the era’s civil rights leaders? The nation’s war economy? Neither Schenkkan nor Cox illustrate clearly enough Johnson’s descent from committed candidate to surprise abdicator.

And at the slightest hint of the president approaching something like intimacy with the audience, a moment of soliloquized earnestness or a smidgeon of soul-bearing with the faintly present Lady Bird (Barbara Garrick), we’re off to the next rest stop on the history highway. There’s a sense that if the president can’t be fully formed here, then no one can. VP Hubert Humphrey (Richard Thomas) comes across as ideologically pure early on but barely registers as the play chugs forward. David Garrison plays Richard Nixon with a refreshingly charismatic sleaziness (the Married with Children actor also turns up as Governor George Wallace, Sheriff Jim Clark, and the Quaker minister Norman Morrison), but Tricky Dick is mainly there for exposition, as it’s through Nixon that we learn of the deaths of MLK and Robert F. Kennedy.

The red-hot hostility between RFK (Bryce Pinkham) and his brother’s successor provides some comic relief early on, as the pair masks their disgust on a sort of split-screen phone call, but, except for some blaring headlines, Kennedy also fades into the background. There’s lots more, including Marc Kudisch as Chicago’s Mayor Daley, but to list them all would be to substitute quantity for dramatic clarity in the same way The Great Society Does does.

Despite how much is crammed in, and despite the daunting cast of characters listed in the program with biographical identifiers, the play’s events are seldom hard to follow, which is, in itself, an achievement. There’s some crackling momentum in a few Oval Office scenes in which LBJ juggles a revolving door of senators, advisors, and lobbyists jockeying for his attention. And Rauch’s ample use of the courtroom pews that surround three sides of the stage allows simultaneous action to play out in occasionally clever ways (like the perpetually postponed appointment forever waiting outside the Oval Office) that keep things moving along.

Elsewhere, The Great Society’s breakneck pace comes with loaded consequences. A dramaturgical drive-by of the 1966 March Against Fear, during which Stokely Carmichael delivered his divisive “Black Power” speech, doesn’t get enough time or background context. Since only the perspectives of Dr. King and President Johnson receive real consideration, and both of those men, for different reasons, opposed what Carmichael stood for, Schenkkan’s play appears tacitly to denigrate the Black Power movement from all directions.

The Great Society perks up when it enters factoid territory, bite-sized encounters or vignettes that may have you rushing to Wikipedia to see how true to life they are. Did Carmichael really storm the stage at an MLK rally at the March Against Fear, dividing the crowd against civil disobedience? (Sort of, but MLK himself wasn’t present that day.) Did LBJ really dismiss his African-American assistant (Nikkole Salter) after her son lost his life in Vietnam, a pivotal-seeming plot point? (Uh, no. The real “Sally Childress,” Gerri Whittington, was actually the first black presidential secretary, and she was neither fired nor bereaved.) And did LBJ really spring a surprise press conference on the head of the American Medical Association (AMA), forcing him to endorse Medicare? (That one’s pretty much accurate, and it’s also the scene where Cox is at his best, showing off the president’s ebullient cunning.)

But so what if I learned something when I felt nothing at all? The Great Society premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2014, as All the Way was going all the way to Broadway, so any resonances with 2019—the Nixonian ones come to mind—are just coincidence. But the origins of the pair of plays as a would-be Shakespearean duology throw into relief the hollow crown at The Great Society’s center. If this is Lyndon the First: Part II, there’s never enough sense of the paralyzing, overwhelming weight of the White House to elevate the play from robust synopsis to fresh take, let alone revelatory anatomization of a presidency.

The Great Society is now playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.

Dan Rubins

Dan Rubins is a writer, composer, and arts nonprofit leader based in New York City. He has previously written about theater for CurtainUp, Theatre Is Easy, A Younger Theatre, and the journal Shakespeare.

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