The broad, semicircular Vivian Beaumont Theater can feel like a vast arena, a coliseum, and there’s something appropriate, almost comforting, about the charged opening moments of Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society. Arrayed across the stage, poster-bouncing partisans shout “All The Way With LBJ!” Soon the man himself, not yet larger than life but feeling fate angling in his direction, rallies the crowd with a signature Johnsonian parable. It concerns a bull rider at the rodeo, taking on the meanest, nastiest specimen at risk of being tossed, trampled, gored and killed, whispering his mantra before unleashing the torrent of violence that awaits him: “Check your grip. Take a breath. Here we go!” as he wonders what the hell he’s doing it for.
And we’re off to the races as Schenkkan picks up where he left of with 2014’s All the Way. The first installment took the future president from his impoverished Hill Country rearing through his tour through the halls of Congress and, finally, his ascendancy to the White House following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, who’d chosen the Texas wrangler as his running mate to assure the electorate that the White House would be administered by neither Rome nor Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Now installed in the Oval Office, Johnson’s first act is negotiating passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, which will affirm JFK’s legacy and become his own monument to the causes of civil rights legislation and his war on poverty. Although he’s acclaimed as the Master of the Senate, Johnson’s formidable obstacles include an intransigent South, a growing movement whose leader, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is facing his own increasingly restless lieutenants hungry for faster change, and – incrementally, at first, and then with centripetal speed – the intensifying, calamitous morass of Vietnam as it morphs from a distant abstraction to the defining tragedy of Johnson’s term.
The cast of characters is vast and includes, for starters, Johnson’s post-JFK nemesis, the murdered president’s ambitious brother Bobby; vice president Humphrey; FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover; Chicago Mayor Richard Daley; Senator Everett Dirksen and Representative Wilbur Mills; Alabama Governor George C. Wallace; and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, representing the hawkish crew David Halberstam would dub “the best and the brightest.” That is a lot of names to keep straight and historical terrain to cross. The four extant volumes of Robert Caro’s life of Johnson, in the works since 1976, runs to more than 3,000 pages, and we haven’t even gotten to Southeast Asia yet.
You may emerge from The Great Society after two-and-three-quarters hours feeling like the show too began in the last century, your head spinning from the parade of events and people that have passed by. Orchestrating it all is the Scottish actor Brian Cox, a master of character (his vitae includes King Lear and, currently, Logan Roy, the venal patriarch of HBO’s Succession), who captures Johnson’s bullying gruffness but not the rough charm that made his seductions so terrifyingly persuasive. (Perhaps this will improve as Cox claims better mastery of a ferociously challenging script and he’s able to settle more comfortably into LBJ’s lizard-skin boots.)
Cox’s predecessor in the role, All The Way’s Bryan Cranston, had the benefit of a tighter script and a better supporting cast than director Bill Rauch has assembled here (notably Frank Langella as Georgia Senator Richard Russell, the mentor Johnson would later abandon when he adopted integration as central to his Great Society agenda). Players come and go, with several good actors negotiating multiple roles (Frank Wood as both Dirksen and McNamara’s successor, Clark Clifford; David Garrison as both Wallace and Richard Nixon), none with much credibility (and often with some confusion of identity).
The greatest foil to the buildup of dramatic tension, however, lies with the dramaturgy itself. Schenkkan isn’t big on psychological drilling. Scenes flicker past like images in a zoetrope, and characters tend to be reduced to single-notes: Humphrey (a miscast Richard Thomas) is castrated, RFK (Bryce Pinkham) is slippery, Hoover (Gordon Clapp) is noxious, MLK (Grantham Coleman) is saintly, McNamara (Matthew Rauch, in one of the outstanding performances) is devious, etc.
It’s telling that the deepest emotional punch in The Great Society comes from Victoria Sagady’s projections on David Korins’ set, suggestive of a jury box framed by undersized TV screens, with elements of the Oval Office on the main playing area. Against larger panels behind the observers’ seats, Sagady throws familiar scenes of 60s turbulence (Selma, Watts, Chicago) and, more significantly, the numbers of American soldiers dead and wounded in Vietnam, first in the hundreds and then, in a rising torrent, to the tens of thousands. For anyone like me who came of age in that tumultuous time, those numbers are etched in the heart and mind. They live. They speak volumes.