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Broadway Review: “The Great Society” at the Vivian Beaumont Theater (Through Saturday November 30, 2019)

Broadway Review: “The Great Society” at the Vivian Beaumont Theater (Through Saturday November 30, 2019)
Written by Robert Schenkkan
Directed by Bill Rauch
Reviewed by Joseph
Theatre Reviews Limited

“The Great Society,” the second installment of playwright Robert Schenkkan’s biographical account of the years Lyndon B. Johnson spent as president in the White House, is less a drama and more a chronological list of the destructive events the plagued his second term in office. To the playwright’s credit, it is extensively detailed and factual; however, to his discredit, it is brutally long with absolutely no affect. The effort begins to feel much like a boring history lesson. Yes, it is about the “The Great Society,” the phrase coined to describe the social and domestic programs that LBJ devised to combat poverty and racial injustice, but it needs to be more about the character of the man and those that surrounded him in allegiance or confrontation in order to command attention. This production assembles political figures of the time in what begins to feel like the waiting room in a doctor’s office where, one by one they enter to utter a few words of comradery or – more often – discontent. If it were not for name recognition or some flimsy impersonations the lines could have been read by cardboard cutouts. These characters were given not enough time or interesting material to establish an emotional connection to the events taking place. Most of the dialogue is merely spewed out as information, at times regurgitated, and ends up being shouted to change the narrative and create an impact.

The enormous cast of nineteen with the brilliant Brian Cox as LBJ at the helm, tries to infuse energy into the interminable script but is unsuccessful. Mr. Cox never manages to capture the down-home charm or the intriguing coercing tactics that were a trademark of his character, perhaps because of a clichéd ridden text and cursory scenes that seem more like vignettes filled with impersonations. Vice President Hubert Humphrey (Richard Thomas) was depicted as more a prop to activate a situation rather than a political companion that was there to help run the country. As history has it “Lady Bird” Johnson (Barbara Garrick) broke new ground as First Lady by directly interacting with Congress, employing her own press secretary and was responsible for “The Highway Beautification Act.” In this production, she serves tea and bakes non-fattening cupcakes. The depiction of an endless list of influential politicians that were important to that era is notably unremarkable and bland. The Rev. Martin Luther King (Grantham Coleman), J. Edgar Hoover (Gordon Clapp), Robert Kennedy (Bryce Pinkham), George Wallace and Richard Nixon (David Garrison) are all portrayed admirably, with different degrees of impersonating vocals and physical presence but gravitate more towards delivering the cumbersome dialogue than establishing depth of character.

Too much information is packed into the nearly three-hour verbal onslaught and none of it is new or delivered in a fresh manner that results in entertainment. Director Bill Rauch has done nothing to elevate the actors to permeate the one-dimensional characters in order to add an emotional connection. The pace becomes sluggish especially in the second act which just continues the litany of facts that get so jumbled and repetitive that lines begin to be dropped and delivered hesitantly. When it is all said and done, what does come to mind is the question whether those who were alive during these troubled times, which seemed to be most of the audience, needed to relive or be reminded of those disruptive and horrible events.


Leading the nineteen-member ensemble cast of “The Great Society” are Brian Cox, Grantham Coleman, Marc Kudisch, Bryce Pinkham, Frank Wood, Gordon Clapp, and Richard Thomas. They are joined by Marchánt Davis, Brian Dykstra, Barbara Garrick, David Garrison, Ty Jones, Christopher Livingston, Angela Pierce, Matthew Rauch, Nikkole Salter, Tramell Tillman, Ted Deasy, and Robyn Kerr.

“The Great Society’s” creative team includes David Korins (sets), Linda Cho (costumes), David Weiner (lights), Paul James Prendergast (composer/sound), Victoria Sagady (projections) and Daniel Swee (casting).

“The Great Society” runs at the Vivian Beaumont Theater (150 West 65th Street) through Saturday November 30, 2019 on the following performance schedule: Tuesday at 7:00 p.m., Wednesday at 1:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m., Thursday at 7:00 p.m., Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 1:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 1:00 p.m. Tickets are available by calling 800-447-7400, online at or in person at the Lincoln Center Theater box office. Ticket prices range from $107-157. Running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes including one intermission.

Photo: Barbara Garrick and Brian Cox in “The Great Society.” Credit: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade, 2019.
Permalink | Posted by David Roberts on Monday, October 28, 2019