Robert Schenkkan’s “The Great Society” is a sprawling historical play with President Lyndon Baines Johnson at the center while events surrounding him are vigorously enacted. A lot of territory is crowded into the drama, and while other characters of the period (1965-1968) are colorfully portrayed, the intense acting of Johnson by Brian Cox is what energizes and defines the play.
Director Bill Rauch interweaves scenes in the U.S with action in the Oval Office as Johnson meets with a retinue of notables, and the transitions are smoothly executed. Cox imbues Johnson with his reputed temper and ability to manipulate people in his quest for pushing through Great Society programs, and his fury at obstacles that arise. For much of the play that is the side of him we see, but finally, in a private scene with his wife Lady Bird (Barbara Garrick), we see him in more intimate human terms leading to his decision not to seek the presidency again in 1968.
One of the main conflicts portrayed is his trying to calm and slow down the demands by African-Americans for total rights, although he favors that in principle. We see his clashes with Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (Granthan Coleman), the black power movement promoted by Stokely Carmichael (Marchánt Davis), the Watts riots in Los Angeles and African-American protests in Selma, and also in Chicago, with Johnson demanding action from resistant Mayor Daley (Marc Kudisch).
Johnson finds Robert Kennedy (Bryce Pinkham) a pain in the butt. A host of other key people of the era are smoothly woven into the play with many cast members in multiple roles. Among those depicted are J. Edgar Hoover (Gordon Clapp), Governor George S. Wallace and Richard Nixon (both played by David Garrison), Reverend Ralph Abernathy and Representative Adam Clayton Powell (both played by Ty Jones), Pat Nixon (Angela Pierce), Robert McNamara (Matthew Rauch), Hubert Humphrey (Richard Thomas), Coretta Scott King (Nikkole Salter) and Senator Everett Dirksen (Frank Wood).
Of course, the play also concentrates on the issue that eventually brought Johnson to call it quits and not run again—the mounting casualties in the Vietnam War and the expanding opposition to its continuance. At various moments the numbers of killed and wounded are projected in the bakground. Johnson sinks deeper into the morass that he doesn’t really want. We hear the protest chants of “LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”
This is a vast and useful history lesson, and it frequently made me compare the intelligence, skills and wit of Johnson with what sits in the Oval Office today. Enough said. At the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed November 1, 2019.