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A CurtainUp Review
The Great Society
By Elyse Sommer
Part One, All the Way, started at the beginning of Johnson's presidency. It was a huge hit that won both Best Play and Best Actor Tonys. Now Part two, The Great Society, that sees him push through the rest of his agenda is at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater.
But, oh, what a difference 5 years have made! I don't see any Tonys on the horizon this time.
For starters, there's the effect of the changes in the world around us since All the Way arrived on Broadway in 2014 . Watching Johnson use his political skills to enlist friends and foes to get the Civil Rights Act passed was inspiring, and particularly exciting since our first African-American president, Barak Obama, was still in office. Another dream come true!
What's more, the idea that a female president was a distinct possibility. Not so, that the next White House occupant would be Donald J. Trump.
And so, while The Great Society again features a virtual army of well credentialed actors, and a much lauded lead, it is likely to divide theater goers: For completists, a must see; for quite a few others, less so — that's because the idea of spending another three hours watching a political play about a super savvy leader's inspiring achievments seems almost like a fairy tale in the light of the real events constantly streaming from our TV and gadget screens.
While All the Way was upifting, The Great Society depressingly serves as a reminder that even the best intentions can end up being tragically undermined by other circumstances. For Johnson, his remarkable Great Society legislation wasn't enough to keep him in office another term in the face of the increasing Vietnam protests and other domestic debacles . And, now that we have a president whose only dream is to undo what the actualization of Johnson's effective politicking made possible, this second of Mr. Shenkkan's LBJ plays may be just too much of a downer.
With Bill Rauch again at the helm, The Great Society is nevertheless a valuable slice of American history — especially for theater goers too young to have experienced the sixties themselves. Unfortunately, even without the effect of world events, the current production suffers from what to me looks like what I think of as sequelitis— the tendency of sequels not to be on a par with their predecessors.
It remains to be seen how sequels to super hits like Phantom of the Opera and Mamma Mia! now in the works will fare. But for now, the symptoms of sequelitis are more than evident on the Vivian Beaumont's spacious stage. Despite All the Way serving as an all-around satisfactory prequel , The Great Society simply doesn't provide .the same rewards.
Brian Cox has some fine moments but , at least in this role, he esn't project Bryan Cranston's charisma or crystal clear delivery. Cranston was riveting to watch for the entire play. Cox, who has certainly satisfied a huge fan base as the patriarch in HBO's Succession, just isnt t as ideally cast here . He's fully satisfying only occasionally — mostly towards the latter part of the play/.
To continue with the sequelitis problem: All the Way had dramatic momentum that made the almost three hours solidly engrossing, The Great Society lumbers along — more fact spouting history lesson than entertainment. Furthermore, the large cast of terrific actors once again lined up around LBJ — nineteen of them playing some four dozen parts — are now given only sporadic opportunities to create memorable personas and seem to function more as human talking points than fully developed characters; for example, the usually outstanding Richard Thomas certainly deserves better than the Vice-President Humphrey he gets to play.
At the heart of the problem is the difference between what each play covers. Unlike the more concise, narrow focus of All the Way, this follow up covers so much ground that the actors pop up for mini appearances, often so fast and briefly that it can be challenging to identify the less well known ones. (There IS a helpful who's who program insert insert to check out before curtain time and again at intermission, and I've included all the roles the actors play in the production notes.).
To their credit, many cast members do manage to make strong impressions. Grantham Coleman as Martin Luther King effectively handles the dissent within his movement; David Garrison ably differentiates between the notoriously racist Governoer George Wallace and Richard Nixon; the always fun to watch Marc Kudisch is especially good as Chicago's Mayor Richard J. Daley.
Other famous personages portrayed as vividly as possible are Gordon Clapp's J. Edgar Hoover, Bryce Pinkham's Robert F. Kennedy, and Frank Wood's Senator Everett Dirkson. I could go on, but you get the idea; a stellar cast making the most of limited time on stage.
The physical production too has its drawbacks. As the big cast has too little time to create portraits instead of quick sketches, David Korins's set recreates the first part's look, but it all seems lost on the Beaumont's large stage. And, though it makes sense to rely on projections to take us to the various locales, Victoria Sagady's video work could be clearer.
If you invest the time and money to watch Cox's LBJ get all these bills that made America greater than ever passed, I suspect you'll exit the theater fervently hoping that Robert Shenkkan — or some playwright — will soon have the facts to write a play to fit the title The Rise and Fall of Donald J. Trump.
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The Great Society by Robert Schenkkan
Directed by Bill Rauch
Brian Cox (President Lyndon Baines Johnson),Grantham Coleman (Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.) Marc Kudisch (Dr. James Z. Appel, Richard J. Daley, General Earle Wheeler), Bryce Pinkham (Robert F. Kennedy), Richard Thomas (Hubert Humphrey), Frank Wood (Sen. Everett Dirksen,'Deke' Deloach, Colonel Al Lingo, Clark Clifford), Gordon Clapp (J. Edgar Hoover), Marchánt Davis (Stokely Carmichael, John Lewis),Ted Deasy (Ensemble), Brian Dykstra (Adam Walinsky, Gen. William Westmoreland, Seymore Trammel, Stanley Levison, Gardner Ackley), Barbara Garrick(Lady Bird Johnson), David Garrison (Gov. George Wallace,Sheriff Jim Clark, Norman Morrison a Quaker minister, Richard Nixon),Ty Jones (Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell), Robyn Kerr (Ensemble), Christopher Livingston (James Bevel, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Angela Pierce (Pat Nixon, Sheriff's Auxiliary), Matthew Rauch (Robert McNamara, Rep. Wilber Mills), Nikkole Salter (Coretta Scott King), Sally Childress (LBJ's Secretary), Tramell Tillman (Bob Moses, Rev. Dobynes, Hosea Williams, Marquette Frye)
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.
Projection design by Victoria Sagady
Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with 1 intermission
Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center (not a LC production)
From 9/06/19; opening 10/01/19;closing 11/30/19 Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
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