Roaring and seizing the stage like the great Shakespearean actor he is, Brian Cox’s majesty transcends Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society’s lumpiness. His hair darkened, utilizing his distinctive rumbling voice and occasionally employing a slight Texan twang, Mr. Cox’s portrayal of Lyndon Baines Johnson goes for the soul of that complex and proud figure, rather than impersonation. Cox’s entrancing performance has the essence of a doomed king out of Shakespeare. Initial regal arrogance gives way to pathos as he compromises his principles. There is doddering as events take their toll on his mentality and finally a harrowing acceptance of his egotistical self-imposed failure. Cox’s magnificence is the centerpiece of this cluttered historical drama.
LBJ’s ambitious social programs in the United States of the 1960’s being sidetracked by the folly of the Vietnam War and his mishandling of the unrest caused by the Civil Rights Movement, have been the subject of books, documentaries and television docudramas. Playwright Schenkkan’s stage treatment of this material is a clumsy waxworks affair of a multitude of forgotten and remembered personages spouting off during two choppy acts.
Amidst the superficial panorama, there are effective sequences taking place in the Oval Office, but then there are clunky scenes of protests, police brutality and military battles. Mr. Schenkkan’s device of having a soulful Vice President Hubert Humphrey around as an ever-present foil to counter LBJ’s hubris is inspired. Schenkkan’s sense of history is assured but his grasp of drama is deficient. Most striking is the somber depiction of LBJ’s televised March 31, 1968 declination to seek reelection. Instead of this being a powerful finale, it’s then followed by a lame imaginary bit. Many incidents would fare better as brief video clips rather than strained onstage episodes.
All the Way was Schenkkan’s 2012 regionally produced taut, epic and suspenseful work dramatizing LBJ’s battle to obtain Congressional support for his Civil Rights Act of 1964. It reached Broadway in 2014, where it won Tony Awards for Best Play and for Brian Cranston’s performance as LBJ and was adapted into a 2016 HBO film. In comparison, The Great Society which also was first performed regionally, is a wayward hodgepodge that doesn’t cohere with satisfaction. Embedded within this busy production are resonant sequences but they’re not enough to put it over. As with many Shakespeare productions, The Great Society’s program includes an insert identifying the large assortment of characters. The principal cast does reasonable facsimiles of the famous figures they portray, with many playing several roles.
Richard Thomas’ Hubert Humphrey conveys weak morality without replicating Humphrey’s speech pattern. Expectedly sly and scheming is David Garrison’s Richard Nixon. Mr. Garrison is equally malevolent as George C. Wallace. Chicago-accent intact, and domineering is Marc Kudisch’s Richard J. Daley. Gordon Clapp as J. Edgar Hoover is more befuddled than vicious. Frank Wood’s Senator Everett Dirksen is wily and folksy. Grantham Coleman as Martin Luther King Jr. is suitably fiery. Going a bit overboard with the Boston dialect is the bewigged with flowing locks Bryce Pinkham, who makes a pointed impression as Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
Director Bill Rauch’s solid staging is at its best when concentrating on the political drama indoors where the combative characters’ debates incite interest on the issues of the time. For the outdoor clashes, Mr. Rauch’s struggles for crackle despite the inherent insipidness. Rauch does achieve strong performances from the company and momentum in the more contained second act with his focused pacing.
The large, round and raised playing area with its Capitol and White House embellishments created by scenic designer David Korins is an arresting dream-like landscape. The back wall has panels where projection designer Victoria Sagady’s accomplished images and news footage are shown. Lighting designer David Weiner crafts the wavering look of a dimension that crosses straightforward reenactment with invented scenes. Paul James Prendergast’s searing sound design renders the blaring effects with modulation and his sharp modernistic original score with flair. Besides a bounty of fine dark suits for the men, costume designer Linda Cho’s women’s wear is stylishly 1960’s.
Like the era it presents, The Great Society is crammed with tumultuousness and ends in disappointment. Seeing it in the present, with its collection of divisive issues, a polarized electorate and controversial political leaders, it does have a sense of American history repeating itself.
The Great Society (through November 30, 2019)
Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit: http://www.greatsocietybroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission