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Review: In ‘The Great Society,’ Another Presidential Nightmare


Instead of psychology we are shown stratagems. Just as in “All the Way,” Mr. Schenkkan tries to dramatize Johnson’s character through a series of triangulations, often with Vice President Hubert Humphrey (Richard Thomas) standing by as a pawn. Using flattery and the threat of embarrassment, he gets the American Medical Association to support the creation of Medicare, which it vehemently opposed. With the press watching, he boxes George Wallace, the white supremacist governor of Alabama, into a corner, forcing him to express support for a plan to protect the civil rights marchers from Selma to Montgomery.

But these realpolitik skits, in which history is divvied up as unlikely dialogue, tell us little about Johnson beyond what a detailed timeline would. Perhaps it tells us even less, because there are way too many of them for a play that runs 2 hours and 40 minutes, and because they are all fundamentally the same.

Certainly they are staged as such by the director, Bill Rauch. As he did in “All the Way,” he places the supporting characters of “The Great Society” in a semicircle around Johnson as if they are witnesses in a jury box or potential victims in an amphitheater. They come forward, are mauled, then slink away.

Nor do Johnson’s interstitial arias about rodeos and rattlesnakes do more than provide surface color. We already understand that the president grew up hard, poor, plain-spoken, proud; what we don’t understand, and the play fails to show us, is the man beneath the self-invention.

In a prose biography that needn’t matter; indeed, we do not want too much speculative psychology from historians. We let the accumulation of facts suffice. But a play that doesn’t dramatize a man’s interior landscape is just a pageant, and to act such a character is to recite a résumé. That’s a shame because Mr. Cox, a notable Titus Andronicus and Lear, certainly has someone like Johnson in his wheelhouse. But “The Great Society” is Shakespearean only in its bellowing; the poetry of consciousness has largely been boiled away.

You can sense what a deeper treatment might have felt like in the few scenes that feature personal rather than political conflict, thus allowing character to emerge, albeit timidly. In one, Johnson and Lady Bird (Barbara Garrick) take a secret drive outside the White House to gander at the hippies protesting the war. In another, the commander-in-chief’s failure to find the right words to console families of soldiers killed in action gives us a glimpse of the deep-seated sense of inadequacy that might be a clue to his moral collapse.


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