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Theatre in Review: The Great Society (Vivian Beaumont Theater)

Brian Cox. Photo. Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade, 2019.

The commotion emanating from the Beaumont these nights might be the sound of President Lyndon B. Johnson roaring, Lear-like, at his enemies, or it might signal a nation in profound crisis; now that I think of it, these might be the same thing. In his sweeping sequel to the hit drama All the Way -- which portrayed Johnson's cajoling, threatening, arm-twisting efforts to obtain passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- playwright Robert Schenkkan recounts what happened next -- and if it's not a pretty story, it's certainly a gripping one. In the new work, Johnson, brought to thundering, table-thumping life by Brian Cox, plots an even bigger triumph with the social program of the title, designed to guarantee a good education, decent healthcare, and protection against poverty for all Americans. Despite considerable opposition, success seems all but assured, until he gets caught in the grinding gears of history.

The cogs that shred Johnson and his vision are the forces of racism and war. With legal guarantees in place for blacks in such fundamental areas as housing and voting rights, implementation becomes the challenge, one that Martin Luther King and his movement readily take up. Resistance forms on all fronts, however, whether it involves disenfranchisement in Alabama or discrimination in Chicago. Johnson, sympathetic to the cause, nevertheless wants King to slow-walk his campaign, for fear he will alienate conservatives in both parties; to his considerable ire, he is ineluctably drawn into the drama of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches -- to him, an unnecessary waste of political capital. Still, watching him juggle all the parties involved -- racist sheriffs, harrumphing Congressmen, the righteously demanding King, and many others -- is to understand how he earned the term Master of the Senate.

Disaster is averted at Selma -- if only by a hair -- but the race issue festers, leading to urban riots, the splintering of King's coalition, and the rise of the Black Power movement. At the same time, guided by the bland, data-driven reports of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Johnson commits a small number of troops to South Vietnam, purely as a gesture to prop up the anti-communist regime. Thanks to the Joint Chiefs of Staff's total misunderstanding of the terms of conflict, he agrees to deploy more and more soldiers, eventually increasing the draft to meet the war's ever-expanding needs. Scene after scene begins with Victoria Sagady's projections of the latest tallies of wounded and dead, the rising numbers providing a sure sign that Johnson's legislative plans are imperiled. As The Great Society shows, the dream is consumed by the fires of Watts and blown to bits in the rice paddies outside Saigon.

Schenkkan, taking a leaf from Shakespeare, writes chronicle plays that capture the tenor of their times, driven by clashing ideas and filled with incisive thumbnail sketches of the principal players. It's a dramatic format more popular in England than here, where playwrights often prefer to wrestle with issues of family life and personal identity. Certainly, All the Way was better received than The Great Society, which has garnered rather more mixed notices. The reasons for this are hard to imagine, for, by any measure, this is an extraordinary piece of work. If you weren't alive in the Johnson years, it is a concise and electric summary of the conflicts that led directly to today's divided America. If you were there, be prepared for it to come crashing back, in all its tumult and fury.

In Cox, the production has a more-than-worthy successor to Bryan Cranston's Johnson. Portly, oratorical, and brazenly manipulative -- a fund of honeyed anecdotes designed to seduce the listener -- he is the production's lithium-ion battery, racing from one encounter to the next, exploiting friends and foes alike. He is the consummate politician, almost always "on" and adjusting his demeanor to match the mood of each new Oval Office interloper. His ability to turn on a dime from a glad-handing stance to icy rage is without peer. If necessary, he can flatter shamelessly, but his candor, applied against an enemy, can be lethal. (Curtly dismissing the pretense of sympathy offered by the fiscal conservative Wilbur Mills, he says, "If you're finished with the hand job, Wilbur, we need this tax bill.") It's a marathon role, as challenging as anything in the classical repertory, and Cox is especially acute when tracking Johnson's growing frustration and importance in the face of events he can't control. As exhaustion and paranoia overtake him, he seemingly implodes in full audience view.

The great pleasure of Bill Rauch's pounding, relentlessly paced production is the regiment of fine character actors at his command, many of them in multiple roles. Grantham Coleman, coming off his triumphant Benedick in last summer's Much Ado About Nothing, is a superb King -- watchful, wary, and carefully calculating how much he can compromise without losing his soul; he makes the most of King's denunciation of the war, providing the fatal blow to Johnson's plans. Richard Thomas finds the poignance in Hubert Humphrey as he discovers that Johnson's patronage comes with pronounced limits. Marc Kudisch scores as the head of the AMA, euchred by Johnson into publicly endorsing Medicare, and as Richard Daley, the corrupt Chicago mayor, who warns Johnson he is tearing the Democratic Party apart. Bryce Pinkham is a master of the cold-eyed stare as Robert Kennedy, who makes no secret of his loathing for the man who succeeded his brother. Frank Wood oozes sententiousness as Everett Dirksen, the Republican Illinois Senator hell-bent on scrubbing the national budget of every loose dollar.

As if this weren't enough, we also get Gordon Clapp as J. Edgar Hoover, whispering conspiracies in Johnson's ear; Barbara Garrick as Lady Bird, a mordant onlooker at the political battlefield; David Garrison, self-righteous as George Wallace and oleaginous as Richard Nixon; Ty Jones as Reverend Ralph Abernathy, struggling to keep apostates like Stokely Carmichael (Marchánt Davis, effectively simmering with rage) in line. It's not so much a cast as a tag-team, running furiously from scenes of Oval Office conflict to riots staged in slow motion, swapping costumes and personas as they go.

The action unfolds on David Korins' curved set, which, surrounded by bench seating, is both an arena and a courtroom where a nation's character is on trial. Sagady's video projections cover the stage with, among other things, images of the White House, the Edmund Pettus Bridge (the flashpoint in the Selma march), Confederate flags, scrolling newspaper headlines, and stark images of urban violence; the many television screens built into the set deliver footage of riot scenes. David Weiner's lighting constantly redirects one's eye from one conflict point to the next while using different temperatures of white light to reset the emotional tone of each scene. Linda Cho's costumes often endow familar actors with strange new silhouettes, while Tom Watson's hair and wig designs create distinct looks for each character. The sound design, by Paul James Prendergast and Marc Salzberg, conjures marchers raising their voices in song, police sirens, and gunfire, among many other effects.

There are moments when the play threatens to be overtaken by exposition, and, I suppose, for those not well-versed in the history of the period, it may take time to sort out the characters. After the intense pace of Act I, the early part of the second act dips just a bit, although the latter sequences pick up again for a strong finale. But, in its reach and scope, The Great Society makes so many other new dramas seem like the merest piffle. More than ever, we need playwrights like Schenkkan to show us how we got to where we are today. Whatever you want to say about Johnson and his flaws, the contrast with today's presidential politics is stunningly instructive -- and profoundly dismaying. See it and learn what a real president -- even a tragic one -- does. --David Barbour

(11 October 2019)

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