Friday, November 1, 2019

105 (2019-2010): Review: THE GREAT SOCIETY (seen October 31, 2019)

"When a President Would Not Accept the Nomination of His Party"

Robert Schenkkan’s bloated, panoramic, history-lesson of a play, The Great Society, is about a blustery, foul-mouthed, arm-twisting, power-hungry American president whose signature slogan blares the word “great.” His name, of course, is Lyndon Baines Johnson and he is being given a fiery, high-decibel performance by Scottish star, Brian Cox, so ruthlessly cunning as another raging autocrat, the Rupert Murdoch-like Logan Roy, on TV’s “Succession.”

Brian Cox. All photos: Evan Zimmerman.
The Great Society, Schenkkan’s sequel to his Tony-winning All the Way (2014), in which an equally memorable Bryan Cranston was closer in age (58) and appearance (although six inches too short) to the 36th POTUS than Cox (73, 10 inches shorter, and portly). But Cox is a great enough actor so that, even if we can’t forget, we eventually don’t mind the disparities too much as he rages like King Lear (which Cox has played) against the overwhelming circumstances of his tenure before they crush him and he decides not to run for a second term.

Whereas All the Way gained its potency from its focus on Johnson’s forging ahead despite awesome obstacles to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Great Society (subtitled Part II of the LBJ Plays), covers much wider territory from early January 1965 through the election of Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, in 1968. Thirty-seven named (and many more unnamed) characters—many of them important political figures—are played by 17 actors, supplemented by two “ensemble” members, in scenes set in Washington, D.C., Selma, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

As they used to say, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard, so the production actually provides a two-sided card listing each character with an identifying tag. Obviously, wig and costume changes (Tom Watson designed the former, Linda Cho the latter) are abundant, and distinguished actors—like Bryce Pinkham, Frank Wood, and Marc Kudisch—must rush about, playing not only significant persons but extras, like policemen or protesters.
Richard Thomas, Frank Wood, Brian Cox, Marc Kudisch, Brian Dykstra.
The Great Society, presented at the Vivian Beaumont, is played out on David Korins’s flexible thrust-stage set, with congressional-style benches to either side, a central trap that allows units like desks and sofas to appear and disappear, and a semicircular rear wall for multiple projections of period images, including information such as Vietnam War casualties.

Under the capable direction of Bill Rauch (All the Way), who staged the premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the show moves swiftly, only rarely slowing down to catch its breath (and give us a breather from its informational overload), as it races through the multiple crises and personalities of the Johnson presidency.
Brian Cox, Bryce Pinkham.
Included are the divide among black leaders regarding violent (Stokely Carmichael, played by Marchant Davis) or nonviolent (Dr. Martin Luther King, played by Grantham Coleman) protests; and the catastrophically accelerating Vietnam War, a result of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s (Matthew Rauch) convincing the initially reluctant president to increase American military involvement.

Either of these would have been enough for a single drama but we also get the pummeling of AMA president James Z. Appel (Kudisch) into supporting Medicare; J. Edgar Hoover’s (Gordon Clapp) unparalleled use of the FBI to surveil Americans for potential subversive activities;  Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley’s (Kudisch) being confronted over his discriminatory policies; tax negotiations with House Ways and Means chair Wilbur Mills (Rauch) to address the ballooning budget, etc.
Marc Kudish, Brian Cox.
There are also politically heated infusions from the likes of Robert F. Kennedy (Pinkham), George Wallace (David Garrison), Nixon (also Garrison), Hubert Humphrey (Richard Thomas), and many other once-noteworthy names. The domestic side gets some attention with the appearance of Lady Bird Johnson (Barbara Garrick), Coretta Scott King (Nikkole Salter), and Pat Nixon (Angela Pierce). In fact, a late scene between LBJ and Lady Bird, when his world is falling apart, is perhaps the play’s single most human.

Regardless of his superficial resemblances to the current president, Johnson was a far more knowledgeable and savvier political leader. On the other hand, for all his socially progressive accomplishments (“The Great Society”), it can be argued that his policies had even more troubling and bloody results than Trump’s.

The brutality associated with the Montgomery to Selma civil rights marches happened under his watch, as did the hugely destructive race riots in Chicago and Watts, while the number of Americans killed in Vietnam soared from 435 in January 1965 to 25,826 two years later. His responsibility for the quagmire along with the growing competition from Eugene McCarthy and RFK were among the factors influencing him not to seek reelection.
Brian Cox, Richard Thomas, Gordon Clapp.
So much transpires within Schenkkan’s epic drama that even those who lived through the traumatic times it depicts will have difficulty keeping up with it, or maintaining interest as it veers from one crisis to another, many of them featuring Johnson shouting vituperatively at his associates. It’s hard to imagine how anyone with little or no knowledge of this history will respond, which may be one reason the Beaumont was, perhaps not unsurprisingly, only half filled or why so many didn’t return for act two of this two-and-a-half-hour work.

Cox dominates as the Texas-accented, good ol’ boy POTUS, as ready to share a colorful anecdote as to napalm an enemy with craft or anger. Given the sketchiness of the writing, the other actors are mostly reduced to paper-thin pastiches of the people they represent. A belly-padded Marc Kudisch gets away with a decent Mayor Daley, and Grantham Coleman’s MLK is satisfactory but unexciting. But we also get Wood’s nearly invisible Everett Dirksen, Pinkham’s exaggeratedly-accented RFK, Clapp’s stiffly officious Hoover, Garrison’s cartoonish Nixon, and Richard Thomas’s wishy-washy VP Humphrey.
Grantham Coleman.
The Great Society was a program that produced socially revolutionary results that are now endangered by Donald J. Trump. The Great Society doesn’t spend much time reminding us of just what its title represents because it’s too busy describing the multiplicity of forces that ended its founder’s career. Perhaps that’s one of the many reasons that, as a play, it’s anything but great. 

Nothing in the play affected me as strongly as Johnson's speech declining to run again, Its contemporary relevance is such that more than half our country probably wishes to hear the same today. The chances are close to impossible, regardless of what the impeachment process reveals, so I offer his words as wishful thinking:

The strength of America lies in the unity of our people but there is deep division in our country. For my part, I feel strongly that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your President!

Vivian Beaumont Theatre/Lincoln Center
150 W. 65th St., NYC
Through November 24