The Great Society
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Brian Cox plays a weakened LBJ in Robert Schenkkan's sequel to All the Way.
Broadway review by Adam Feldman
In All the Way, which ran on Broadway in 2014, Robert Schenkkan offered a largely sympathetic portrait of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s first year in office: his accession to the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and his canny machinations to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That play depicted the compromises that undergirded Johnson’s success; its informative sequel, The Great Society, shows the following four years, in which the compromises rise and overwhelm him. This is a very different Johnson indeed. Whereas Bryan Cranston brought a dogged vitality and wily command to the role, the version played by Brian Cox (Succession), though still spouting folksy Texas wisdoms and able to manipulate his foes, seems older, wearier and less secure in his power. This is appropriate to Johnson’s story during this period of upheaval: The great strong-armer and glad-hander is losing his grip. But in the absence of Cranston’s central charisma, the play—already spread thin by the longer time frame—seems even more like an illustrated lecture.
As history classes go, this is a classy one. Director Bill Rauch has assembled a large and capable cast of pros for the supporting roles, which are sketched in quick strokes: Bryce Pinkham’s callow Bobby Kennedy, Gordon Clapp’s looming J. Edgar Hoover, Frank Wood’s droll Everett Dirksen, Matthew Rauch’s rueful Robert McNamara, Marc Kudisch’s galumphing Richard Daley, David Garrison’s juicily mean George Wallace and Richard Nixon. (Somewhat less successful, in slightly larger parts, are Richard Thomas’s boy-scoutish Hubert Humphrey and Grantham Coleman’s stiff Martin Luther King Jr.) But people come and go so quickly here that you barely have time to cash the name-checks. Incidents accrue, punted forward by exposition; in the play’s second half, the focus shifts from the civil rights struggle and Johnson’s domestic anti-poverty agenda to the cost of the escalating war in Vietnam, and Schenkkan remembers that Lady Bird (Barbara Garrick) exists. All the Way was, in its way, galvanizing; The Great Society offers the serious-minded but less absorbing spectacle of a tired captain at the wheel, guiding his battered ship ever deeper into the storm.
Vivian Beaumont Theater (Broadway). By Robert Schenkkan. Directed by Bill Rauch. With Brian Cox. Running time: 2hrs 40mins. One intermission.