Review of The Great Society, starring Brian Cox, on Broadway

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    October 2, 2019
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    Like Lyndon B. Johnson with his great society programs, playwright Robert Schenkkan tries to do too much. Focused on building a domestic agenda — Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, and Food Stamps — Johnson, the consummate politician is overtaken by his times — by the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. Similarly, Schenkkan is taken by the cosmic balancing act that is the Johnson presidency. The LBJ on stage at the Vivian Beaumont Theater is sympathetic, crude perhaps and certainly egomaniacal, convinced he can manage it all with his proven professional gifts.

    Everything’s in there as the president struggles to manage Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and the “land war in Asia,” a political third rail of the era. The script covers all the bases, lassoing all the memorable lines that a Cliff Notes version of the time would include. Regrettably, The Great Society does have a slight Cliff Notes whiff to it. Schenkkan, who’s taken on the whole LBJ story, having given us All the Way in 2014 to great reviews and Tonys, seems to have put a lot more heft in that one. And, of course, there was Bryan Cranston in the lead. This one feels thinner.

    Brian Cox’s LBJ is a physical dervish — striding around, moving the furniture, rearranging other players on the stage. He authentically invades everyone’s space the way the actual LBJ imposed.

    It’s an evening of vignettes — savor the simple stop-action drama of the murderous brutality on the Edmund Pettis Bridge — the breath-taking white-mansplaining of the era —  the remarkably bald picture of ward politics as practiced in Chicago.

    Marc Kudisch's bow-legged mayor of Chicago is tasty. Daley, a ruthless powerbroker, has rarely been played so sympathetically. Yes, he’s a brute, caught in the changing times that will soon overwhelm machine politics, but Kudisch’s Daley struggles a bit; you don’t so much sympathize as understand him.

    In one sense, this is a story of vice presidents — Johnson in the shadow of JFK, Nixon smouldering in Ike’s and, in this piece, Humphrey. Richard Thomas gives Hubert Humphrey a kind of cringing dignity — he is the conscience LBJ had no time for.

    David Korins’ remarkably efficient set serves as Oval and graveyard, rally hall and contested bridge. Director Bill Rauch uses the whole house, struggling to multiply what is a sizable cast (17 actors, 50 characters), to riot and rally size. Since I remember all of the lead characters here, I found the physical casting off-putting. (Wait a few years and that will not matter.) But generally, generals are fit and trim — Westmorland, for example. Presidents are tall. And while Gordon Clapp captures the sinister sleaziness of J. Edgar Hoover with real distinction, casting an actor carrying extra weight here is someone’s joke. Crazy in lots of ways, Hoover was known to run a fanatical anti-fat crusade within the Bureau.

    Historical drama aches for relevance. The Great Society rings with foreboding and foreshadowing — certainly worth the price of a ticket.

    (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

    "About halfway through The Great Society, the overstuffed, underbaked play by Robert Schenkkan that opened on Tuesday at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, something strange happens to Lyndon B. Johnson. He loses his grip. Ah, good, you may think. Finally the master manipulator played by Brian Cox — the Scottish Shakespearean and star of HBO's "Succession" — will become interesting as a dramatic character. So why doesn’t he?"
    Jesse Green for New York Times

    "All the Way was, in its way, galvanizing; The Great Society offers the serious-minded but less absorbing spectacle of a tired captain at the wheel, guiding his battered ship ever deeper into the storm."
    Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

    "It’s been five years since Bryan Cranston’s Tony-winning turn as Lyndon B. Johnson in Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way. Now Schenkkan has followed that epic historical pageant with a sequel, The Great Society, opening Tuesday at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre, that like LBJ’s second term dwells mostly in the shadows of its predecessor."
    Thom Geier for The Wrap

    "Playwright Robert Schenkkan picks up where he left off in All the Way to chronicle Lyndon Baines Johnson's embattled presidency. If The Great Society often feels as much like history homework as drama, it thrums along on the engine of Brian Cox's unimpeachably magnetic performance as LBJ."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

    "Brian Cox, the much-lauded stage and film actor currently starring as Logan Roy on HBO’s “Succession,” seems an odd casting choice as Lyndon Baines Johnson, who served as the 36th president of the United States after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Although Cox nails Johnson the political animal who charmed and bullied Washington’s pols – which is the side of the character on constant display here — the actor shows not a hint of LBJ the larger-than-life Texan who gave interviews while on the toilet seat."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety