In Schenkkan’s LBJ, as conjured by the bravura actor Brian Cox, the idea of a leader who puts his powers of persuasion to work on behalf of ingrained ideals and hopes for the nation comes across as magic realism. I only wish that “The Great Society” itself were a more riveting encapsulation of Johnson’s battles over his escalation of the war in Vietnam, and the civil rights struggle, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Grantham Coleman), that convulsed his administration.
As it is, the play at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, which had its official opening Tuesday, lumbers rather than ignites. A lot of arguing rages among historical figures, such as Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey (Richard Thomas) and Republican Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (Frank Wood), to mark the debate among officials trying to manage fires at home and abroad. But it’s a survey of heavily traveled historical terrain and one devoid of noteworthy touches of singular perspective that would stamp it as edifying.
Schenkkan’s previous foray into Johnson’s legacy, “All the Way,” which starred Bryan Cranston as the 36th president, won Tonys for best play and Cranston’s electric portrayal. Guided by director Bill Rauch, Cranston pumped in the jet fuel that the live show needed. With Cranston reprising his performance, it was turned into a far more effective movie for HBO in 2016, and regional theaters such as Arena Stage mounted their own versions.
Johnson’s superhuman effort to strong-arm Congress into adopting the ground-shifting Civil Rights Act of 1964 at least gave “All the Way” thematic thrust. With Rauch returning as director, “The Great Society” is a mushier piece, an only intermittently engaging portrait of a leader consumed by turbulent events beyond his abilities to master. In Cox — so brilliant at the moment as a Murdochian figure in HBO’s scorched-earth family-business satire, “Succession” — the production has a star with the theatrical dynamism but not the protean skills to be a good ol’ country boy; the Texas drawl, for instance, escapes him. He’s not the only one turning in a deficient impression: Neither Coleman’s King nor David Garrison’s Richard Nixon are up to the task of satisfactorily resetting our prodigious memories of those figures.
The Johnson of “All the Way,” forever reminded that his ascension was made possible by the martyrdom of his predecessor, John F. Kennedy, finds himself antagonized in “The Great Society” by JFK’s brother, Bobby (Bryce Pinkham), an ambitious and admired liberal Democratic senator from New York. Pinkham’s is the most successful impersonation in the production, but, as with so many of the confrontations in the play, the dramatic potential of the rivalry between his character and Cox’s LBJ gets smothered in the relentless march of events: the demonstrations in Selma; the military buildup in Vietnam; the establishment of Medicare; the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The drama is comprehensive without being compelling.
On the Beaumont stage, designer David Korins creates a visual cousin to the set that Christopher Acebo devised for “All the Way”: a bank of seats like those in a deliberative chamber, on which the actors wait for their entrances. Much of the play takes place in Johnson’s office, so the stage feels like a giant waiting room. Linda Cho’s costumes reflect the “Mad Men”-type business attire of the mid-1960s. (For the sake of full disclosure: My wife works for Lincoln Center Theater’s landlord, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, which has no responsibility for the show.)
Nineteen actors are deployed here, mostly as conveyances of historical facts. The famous personages — Robert McNamara, Wilbur Mills, George Wallace, Coretta Scott King — rush in and out with word of troop movements or words of defiance or caution. Events are summoned effectively, but not their emotional toll. LBJ’s tragedy, as a result, is only feebly evoked. That would be the hounding of Johnson from the presidency and the ending of the most tempestuous love affair of his life: with the office itself.
The Great Society, by Robert Schenkkan. Directed by Bill Rauch. Set, David Korins; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, David Weiner; music, Paul James Prendergast; sound, Marc Salzberg and Prendergast; projections, Victoria Sagady. With Nikkole Salter, Marc Kudisch, Barbara Garrick, Gordon Clapp. About 2 hours 45 minutes. $99-$225. At Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 W. 65th St., New York. telecharge.com. 212-239-6200.
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