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Review: ‘The Great Society’ At The Dallas Theater Center

by Jerome Weeks 26 Mar 2018 4:58 PM

The sequel to the Tony Award-winning drama ‘All the Way’ finds LBJ trying to steer the US through race riots and Vietnam – just when all the wheels on the American bus come off.


“Shakespearean” is the term of praise most often used by reviewers like myself in 2016 to hail Robert Shenkkan’s Tony Award-winning drama ‘All the Way.’ He managed to capture – without caging or diminishing – President Lyndon Johnson in all his raging insecurity, urgent idealism and down-and-dirty effectiveness as he ran for president in 1964 while also pushing his civil rights agenda through Congress.

‘The Great Society’ presented by the Dallas Theater Center through April 1.

Shenkkan’s achievement was considerable when one realizes how often LBJ has been treated as an overt racist, war-mongerer or Texas clown in such films as ‘The Right Stuff,’ ‘JFK’ and ‘Selma.’ No artist – with the exception of such biographers as Robert Caro and Robert Dallek – had really taken the measure of the man, propulsive and profane, until Shenkkan.

But with ‘The Great Society,’ the sequel to ‘All the Way’ currently at the Dallas Theater Center, it’s clear one reason Shenkkan achieved this was the simple fact his first drama tracked LBJ for less than a year – from Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 to Johnson’s campaign victory in 1964. A pivotal year, to be sure, but in comparison, ‘The Great Society’ covers four times that and, by the end, it doesn’t exult in him so much as feel almost weary and overwhelmed by the man and his times.

To give an idea of the difference: Much of ‘All the Way’ was taken up by the tug of war between the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marching for equality while Johnson campaigned for election and finagled his Civil Rights Bill through Congress, a Congress still controlled by Southern segregationists.

But with ‘The Great Society,’ we get much the same battle for viable compromises on racial issues. And then come the riots of frustration that tear through Watts, Detroit, Newark, Chicago and Houston. That’s just the start. There’s the overwhelming white backlash that led to the cynical opportunism of George Wallace and Richard Nixon. We get not just the growing, unstoppable debacle of the Vietnam War but the huge draft protests that convulsed the country. J. Edgar Hoover is still wiretapping King, but now he has LBJ’s permission to unleash COINTELPRO, the unconstitutional use of break-ins, fake letters and other provocations to “neutralize” the left across the country. Our current surveillance state was born.

protest The Great Society - by Karen Almond (4)

The numbers don’t add up: Brandon Potter as LBJ with Chris Hutchison as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara with anti-war protestors in the back. Photos: Karen Almond.

OK, so it’s the ’60s. That’s what it was like. Wrenching changes just kept piling on, fervent revolution or cultural exhaustion seemed to happen every day. This means at intermission, one actually exits ‘The Great Society’ feeling revved. Shenkkan’s new installment feels as fast-paced, as gripping as ‘All the Way’ did – particularly in his suspenseful handling of the violent face-off when King’s Selma-to-Montgomery peaceful protest march tries to cross the Pettus Bridge against the tear gas and billy clubs of an army of state and local forces.

But by the end of the second act of ‘Society,’ the forty-car pile-up of historical events leaves one bewildered. ‘Wait,’ you may find yourself asking. ‘Did the assassinations of both King and Robert Kennedy just get treated as footnotes?’

That’s because Shenkkan’s drama becomes mostly a cut-and-paste montage of the ’60s with the familiar TV news clips (Walter Cronkite turning against the war, fire blossoms of napalm projected on the set) and the familiar soundtrack (renditions of ‘Oh Freedom!’ and ‘Both Sides Now’ – at least we don’t get ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’).

In the first LBJ drama, the dates were flashed onstage like a ticking countdown in a political thriller. An effective device. Here, the dates don’t orient us so much as make a person wonder, ‘Was that the March on the Pentagon?’ For those theatergoers who didn’t live through the era, I’m not sure the months and years help that much. How many servicemen got killed in what month?

‘The Great Society’ is close to two-and-a-half hours long, with intermission, and reportedly, some 20 minutes were cut since its debut at the Alley Theatre (the Houston company is a co-producer – just as it was with ‘All the Way’). The script needs to be trimmed more because it needs more focus, more form – it needs to be more than just a heap of calamities.

For all the political and racial uproar that occurred in ‘All the Way,’ that play had a built-in, dramatic shape: the forward charge of LBJ’s two simultaneous campaigns – for civil rights and the presidency, the one justifying the other.

But in ‘Society,’ by 1968, the wheels have come completely off the bus. In 1964, there were 24,000 US troops in Vietnam. When Johnson leaves office, it’s half-a-million – as the projections tell us.

chicago race riot Karen Almond (3)_preview

When Martin Luther King brought his civil rights movement north, white Chicago rioted.

The growing chaos within both a leader and his country – and giving that chaos some theatrical coherence and force – is a complicated ‘double drama’ but not an impossible one. Shakespeare keeps pulling off variations in his histories and tragedies with the main character’s moral state as a metaphor for his country (or vice versa).

For the most part, though, Shakespeare’s main characters end up tragic, utterly broken or dead. And that’s not how Shenkkan wants to leave Johnson.

Think ‘Richard II,’ ‘Richard III,’ ‘King Lear,’ ‘Macbeth’  or ‘Coriolanus’ – by the end of those plays, all hell has broken loose, partly because the main character’s own impulses have gone hellbound as well. It’s not like Shenkkan is unaware of the Shakespearean echoes. ‘Society’ even has a ‘ghost scene’ like ‘Macbeth’ – albeit a half-hearted one.

But Shenkkan wants to avoid Johnson sinking into a full-on failure. It would undo much of the sympathetic re-consideration of LBJ as an effective, ‘muscular’ liberal president that Shenkkan created in ‘All the Way.’ The major weakness in that first drama was its obvious bad guys vs. good guys conflict. Johnson, after all, was fighting racists in both the Republican and Democratic parties. He was bound to look good, no matter how many wiretaps on King he authorized.

Here, Shenkkan wants us to see Johnson as great even because of his warts: He has ‘The Great Society’ open with LBJ cheekily admitting he lies. And lies. His basic defense is a brag: You gotta lie to get anything serious done in Washington. And I got stuff done.

The man has a point. But LBJ is portrayed as more sinned against than sinning, particularly when it comes to Vietnam. Apparently, he’s just mouthing the period’s anti-Communism without really believing it. He also seems to be a good ol’ boy mesmerized by the brainiac, corporate mumbo-jumbo of his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (Chris Hutchinson). Mac is a one-man case against the American faith in captains of industry making great political leaders (McNamara ran Ford Motor Company successfully – before becoming a chief advocate of aggressive escalation. You know, end the war by bombing Hanoi into talking peace).

Whatever doubts or distaste Johnson felt over the costs of the war, he also had a bull-headed, Texas-sized ego. When confronted by rebellious staffers who asked why we didn’t simply cut our losses – even the South Vietnamese people preferred the Communists over their own corrupt government – LBJ famously pulled out his genitals and declared, ‘This is why.”

That does not sound like a man who was halfway committed to the war. Needless to say, that scene doesn’t appear in ‘Society.’ Ultimately, Shenkkan’s Johnson starts coming apart – snarling and vindictive and paranoid – before he really achieves greatness, before we really understand why he’s coming apart.

But we’re willing to forgive his failings because, well, there were all those riots by ungrateful black people, all those touching letters to dead servicemen’s families that he personally wrote and all the scorn from the whiny liberals and snotty journalists (who mocked Johnson as ‘Uncle Cornpone’).

Brandon Potter as LBJ in The Great Society - Photo by Karen Almond_preview

Brandon Potter as LBJ.

I’m not arguing with Shenkkan over historical accuracy. It’s about the nature of Shenkkan’s LBJ as a dramatic character, who he is and why he quits. Caro, for instance, is, on balance, a sensitive biographer. And even Caro depicts Johnson as a bully and a sadist, a man who never forgot or forgave a slight.

While Shenkkan doesn’t really give us Johnson the bully, he makes sure we get Johnson the sensitive, backwoods Texan. He repeats one of Caro’s most famous anecdotes about LBJ bringing electricity to the impoverished Hill Country, saving women like his mother a crippling lifetime of hauling water by hand. And this helps explain Johnson’s insecurities, his heartfelt drive to improve working-class Americans’ lives.

Why do these conflicting details matter? What we never fully understand here is Johnson’s relationship with power – beyond that initial wish to help. Even back when he was sweating with road crews in Texas, strapped to two mules pushing rocks, Johnson told co-workers he’d be president some day. Imagine the person who would say that – and make it happen. How Johnson learned to abuse that power, how he instinctively took advantage of events and people’s weaknesses to acquire more, why he held on to it and, most importantly with ‘Society,’ why he finally gave it all up: That’s the essential drama of these plays.

LBJ became so shrewd, so calculating in the ways of Washington, that he agreed to take the second spot on Kennedy’s ticket in 1960 because he knew JFK’s secret, that he was seriously ill, and Johnson had aides research the odds of a sickly president surviving and a vice president taking over. He was willing to take those odds because it was the only chance he had.

So how did such a cutthroat gambler end up so trapped and insecure, so ineffectual as he does by the end here? Johnson’s tremendous ambitions for our country self-destruct even as they’re being realized because the president loses his grip on power, his grip on his own inner demons. It all sounds positively Shakespearean, but Shenkkan simply doesn’t provide a coherent answer for why – beyond that acid trip of historic events we call ‘The ’60s.’ It was all too much, man, and too far out of anyone’s control.

Consider: What was Johnson without power? Several of Shakespeare’s great tragic figures – Macbeth, Coriolanus, Othello – ultimately find a strength or value in themselves, after they’ve lost authority and control, something inside that lets them stand back up, even for a moment, and face their own failings and their enemies in a last moment of, well, if not greatness, then at least self-possession, an awareness of what matters. That’s what makes them tragic heroes.

Historians and journalists have made the case for LBJ doing exactly that: Because of Vietnam, he chose not to run for re-election, he fell on his sword in order to save his domestic programs from further damage. But Shenkkan never portrays that choice dramatically. Mostly, we get self-pity here – and a last, bitter outburst at Nixon, precisely the man who sees LBJ’s precious civil rights and poverty programs as his weakness, a path to unseat him.

It doesn’t help that Brandon Potter, who returns in the lead role, was never strong conveying LBJ’s neediness. Potter exudes a growling forcefulness, a comic folksiness and a few passing regrets, but that’s about all – it’s a two-and-a-half note performance. He was much more effective during Johnson’s calculated push to power in ‘All the Way.’ Here, during his calamitous fall, Potter never manages to give the man much interior life.

It’s always been clear that director Kevin Moriarty has never asked for historic impersonations from his actors. Which is smart. In playing LBJ, if Potter imitated the man’s actual drawl, the play would be two hours longer. But just what Moriarty has asked from his actors isn’t clear. In some cases – notably Dean Nolen’s performance as Hubert Humphrey – an actor’s real achievement comes in making us forget the original. Johnson treated Humphrey cruelly (he was the whipping boy for all the liberals LBJ hated). But Nolen’s vice president occasionally comes across as the only adult onstage – given all the squabbling going on. There’s a fine-grained texture to Nolen’s decent but frustrated Humphrey.

The fact is many theatergoers are too young to have seen or heard many of these figures while they were alive, so the power of impersonating them is doubtful at best. OK. But why then did Moriarty cast Jay Sullivan, who looks and sounds like a living photocopy of Bobby Kennedy? Compared to everyone else, he seems to have entered from a TV news documentary. Moriarty isn’t doing the other actors a favor with such a vivid lookalike; you can’t take your eyes off him. In comparison, everyone else looks like a mannequin in a museum.

And no one is helping the actors’ creations of historic figures by supplying them with the same bad wigs we saw in ‘All the Way’ (the program gives no credit for wig design). This sounds beauty-parlor, hair-salon petty, I know, but wigs can seriously hinder an actor’s projection of character, the impression he wants to achieve. The hair pieces are so bad here that poor Chris Hury plays both George Wallace and Richard Nixon, and when he first enters as Nixon, it takes theatergoers most of a whole speech to realize he’s no longer Wallace. It’s hard to believe a hair stylist couldn’t manage the differences between the real Wallace’s coxcomb pompadour and Nixon’s thinning widow’s peak – anything to distinguish the two men visually.

Shawn Hamilton as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr - by Karen Almond

Shawn Hamilton as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in ‘The Great Society.’

Other performers who shone in the first play – Ace Anderson as Stokely Carmichael, Shawn Hamilton as King – are no longer as incandescent, partly because their characters come already locked and loaded. And they don’t much change here. Anderson’s Carmichael, for example, positively burned in ‘All the Way’ as the major black dissident who stepped forward to challenge the testy, working relationship between King and LBJ. He delivered a furious plea – one that seemed to echo down through the generations of African-American protestors, right to our most recent elections. He spoke for all blacks who demanded the vote – and got clubbed and shot and cheated instead.

But having done that, Carmichael’s got nowhere to go other than exit the movement in despair and defiance. It was a historic split from the main body of civil rights progress but it adds nothing emotionally to him as a stage character. He was angry and uncompromising and he uncompromises himself out the door.

At least Moriarty has learned one thing from the first go-round. Beowulf Boritt’s set – with its two giant rows of columns as backdrop – looks impressively federal but clutters half the performance space. In ‘All the Way,’ Moriarty laid out important scenes back there, obscuring the action from many theatergoers. They’d crane their necks to see which character was talking to whom. This time, thankfully, he reserves those rows mostly for generic protest marches.

As it stands, this second half is not ‘Broadway-ready’ (whatever that may mean) because by the end, Shenkkan himself doesn’t seem completely certain what he’s trying to say about Johnson or how to achieve it. Was the president ultimately a self-made martyr to blind American racism and anti-Communism?  Or did he simply create too many enemies, promise too much, deliver too little?

The fuzziness is understandable. Perhaps, to continue the Shakespeare comparison, ‘The Wars of Lyndon Johnson’ should have been a trilogy. (Shenkkan is no stranger to epic expansion; he first gained attention with his impressive ‘Kentucky Cycle.’) Robert Caro himself in ‘The Passage of Power’ arguably got sidetracked by a tremendous story, a riveting account of one of our most rancorous political feuds (between Johnson and Robert Kennedy). As a result, the fourth volume of his epic biography crawls through only five years in Johnson’s career. In comparison, Shenkkan’s drama looks like a piece of over-accelerated compression.

So ‘The Great Society’ isn’t so great. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a great story buried here – lost somewhere in the torrents of the Big Muddy.