BWW Reviews: THE GREAT SOCIETY Offers History Lesson on LBJ

By: Aug. 12, 2013
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LBJ may be about to have his day, four decades after his death.

Two plays about President Lyndon Baines Johnson are aiming for Broadway. One, "All The Way," is opening next month at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, starring Bryan Cranston of "Breaking Bad" as the 36th President of the United States, and written by Robert Schennkan, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for "The Kentucky Cycle."

The other LBJ play, "The Great Society," written by Alexander Harrington and directed by Seth Duerr, has now opened at The Harold Clurman on Theatre Row.

Let's hope that the one with Bryan Cranston is better.

This is not to say that everything about "The Great Society" is bad. Harrington has created a three-hour history lesson about the Johnson Presidency, from the shot that killed JFK, giving Johnson the office he'd always wanted, to LBJ's televised speech five years later announcing that he would not run again. The play focuses on two major threads - LBJ's greatest accomplishment, the passage of civil rights legislation, and his greatest failure, his escalation of the war in Vietnam - and how one affected the other.

In 15 scenes, LBJ (played by an effective but unspectacular Mitch Tebo) interacts with 10 other actors competently portraying 14 characters - aides, Senators, his Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Martin Luther King Jr.

There are glimpses of some of Johnson's peculiar behavior - we see him holding a meeting while sitting on the toilet - and of some of his power-wielding strategies: He puts Alabama Governor George Wallace (Jeff Burchfield) in a low chair in the Oval Office, so that he can loom over and intimidate him.

There is also some exploration of the complexities and contradictions of LBJ's outsized personality, usually but not exclusively in unguarded moments with his wife Lady Bird (Elena McGhee, the only woman in the cast.) Sprinkled throughout are attempts to explain how a Texan who privately used the N-word and who had spent 20 years in Congress voting against every conceivable civil rights bill, even those intended to curb lynching, could have made it his mission to push through such comprehensive and groundbreaking civil rights legislation. "Dick," he says in the play to his mentor the ardent segregationist Senator Richard Russell of Georgia (standout Yaakov Sullivan), "you and I both know there are two things that are going to let the South share in the prosperity of this country - air-conditioning and integration."

"The Great Society" playwright Alexander Harrington is the son of Michael Harrington, who was the author of the book The Other America, an influential examination of poverty published in 1962, and who as a consultant helped Johnson draft much of his "War on Poverty" legislation. The younger Harrington, who has worked primarily as a director and an adapter, has chosen to create scenes from all five years of LBJ's tenure, an ambitious undertaking. In a two-page note in the program, he offers in diligent detail the ways he has altered the historical record to make "The Great Society" a better play. Most of the changes are trivial. One moment, though, is grating...and revealing.

Harrington fabricates a face-to-face confrontation between Martin Luther King Jr. (Curtis Wiley) and LBJ over the Vietnam War, and places King aide Bayard Rustin (Charles Gray) in the meeting. At one point, Rustin argues with King in front of Johnson, telling him that his involvement with anti-war activists ("a bunch of sophomoric adolescents who make excuses for Stalinist butchers") will do "incalculable harm to our movement."

Now, I'll trust that Harrington has done his homework, and that this was Rustin's actual view. But it is impossible to believe that Rustin, both a savvy political strategist and a well-known pacifist who served time in jail during World War II for refusing to be inducted into the military, would even indirectly advocate for U.S. involvement in Vietnam to Martin Luther King in front of the President of the United States. This simply makes no sense for the character. But his purpose in the scene is not to be a particular human being but, as Harrington explains, "to give voice" to another political position.

The problem here is not one of failing to hew to the historical record. What clearly interests the playwright in this scene and throughout the play are the historical facts and the political arguments of the day more than the characters and the inherent drama.

What is surely one of the most theatrical eras in American history, featuring one of its most colorful characters, feels flattened and rushed, largely reduced to a bunch of men sitting in chairs debating. Some of what they say is intriguing, especially to those who are newly exposed to the era (and have not read any of LBJ biographer Robert Caro's four massive volumes, with a fifth in the works) After a few hours of this, however, "The Great Society" starts feeling like a Sunday morning talk show that has gone on too long.

Production photos by Carrie Crow


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