The Great Society

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Photograph: Carrie Crow
The Great Society
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Photograph: Carrie Crow
The Great Society
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Photograph: Carrie Crow
The Great Society
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Photograph: Carrie Crow
The Great Society
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Photograph: Carrie Crow
The Great Society
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Photograph: Carrie Crow
The Great Society

The Great Society. Clurman Theatre (see Off-Off Broadway). By Alexander Harrington. Directed by Seth Duerr. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 50mins. One intermission.

The Great Society: in brief

Mitch Tebo plays Lyndon Johnson in a fact-based dramatic portrait by Alexander Harrington (whose socialist-intellectual father, Michael, helped inspire Johnson's War on Poverty). Seth Duerr directs.

The Great Society: theater review by Helen Shaw

I cannot be sure, of course, but I do not think Alexander Harrington means his dreadful LBJ docudrama, The Great Society, to be avant-garde. Still, this defiantly clumsy bioplay about Johnson’s time in office could be intentionally subversive; surely no playwright would deliberately ignore all tenets of theatrical structure. Even rudimentary character construction and plot condensation might have turned this info dump into something functionally dramatic. Certainly a lot of exciting things happened from 1963 to ’68. But rather than select one telling episode, Harrington sends us through chutes-and-ladders dramaturgy, with Johnson (Mitch Tebo) experiencing ups (civil rights: hurray!) and downs (Gulf of Tonkin Resolution: boo!) in quick, unsculpted succession. Director Seth Duerr barely stirs this sludgy pot: Men sit in semicircles. After the intermission, men also talk on phones.

The cast members (all game) have a heavy lift, though none so much as Tebo, who drawls and sulks and flings racist language around—then suddenly, devastatingly delivers a few of Johnson’s greatest speeches. (Now there’s some writing.) Harrington’s playmaking daffiness doesn’t extend to his historical chops; there’s detail and thought, too—about Johnson’s self-defeating narcissism, about how realpolitik intertwined the Great Society and the war in Vietnam. But while turning his research into drama, Harrington ignored all the devices by which stories become plays. Unless, of course, he really was launching us into an experimental immersion, and wanted us to experience—physically—what the pundits meant by quagmire.—Theater review by Helen Shaw

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