The Great Society

Is Lincoln Center's portrayal of LBJ's presidency worth your vote?

By Andrew Andrews

The Great Society tracks the decline of Lyndon B. Johnson's popularity at Lincoln Center Theater.

Lyndon Baines Johnson’s tumultuous term from 1964 to 1969 is the focus of Robert Schenkkan’s second play about the president. Brian Cox follows in the footsteps of Bryan Cranston, who, in the spring of 2014, played the Commander-in-chief in Schenkkan’s All The Way, which covered LBJ’s first year following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Concentrating on Johnson’s relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the story depicts LBJ as always stuck between a rock and a hard place, wanting desperately to make great strides in a country that just wasn’t ready to support them. And stymied by budget constraints due largely to his mishandling of Vietnam, the playwright seems to be making the case that LBJ could have accomplished so much more, and maintained his popularity, if only he’d cut his losses early in the conflict.

Attended largely by an audience old enough to remember the events of Johnson’s presidency as they unfolded, the script depicts the man as one of witty one-liners, with a knack for calling press conferences where he convinced his political adversaries to publicly agree to schemes that they were none-too-happy to support.

With Grantham Coleman as Dr. King, The Great Society is almost as much about MLK’s own struggles—not only with LBJ’s pace of action, but within his camp, and against the influences of the Black Power movement that conflicted with his philosophy of non-violent demonstration.

Perhaps because they are portraying larger-than-life characters, the cast of seventeen feels more like a team of celebrity impersonators than actors, with the historical figures always looking like they’re on camera, even during private discussions. Comparing archival footage of LBJ to Cox’s performance, I especially notice that the lead seems to exaggerate the president’s mannerisms and tone. And after watching him trip over his lines nearly two dozen times during this performance, I can’t help but think a different actor would better serve in the role.

Stuffed into seats with less room than the Basic Economy cabin on a domestic airline, we also found it difficult to remain comfortable throughout the performance, even given a much-needed intermission to stand and stretch our legs. While the lines of sight at the Beaumont are excellent due to the stadium-style seating, the lack of space is a definite distraction even from the most interesting of shows.

Despite these significant shortcomings, I actually did enjoy this performance. Although I lack the expertise to personally speak to the accuracy of the events, Schenkkan’s script is well-written, and the direction is as tight as you’d expect from a production of this caliber. Coleman’s depiction of Dr. King was especially noteworthy, convincingly portraying the leader’s conviction to peace and cooperation as the only road leading to equality. And since I can’t award partial stars in the five-piece rating system, I’m electing to round up instead of rounding down.


Andrew Andrews attended The Great Society at Vivian Beaumont Theater in Manhattan on Friday, September 13, 2019 @ 8:00pm to write this review.