In All the Way, playwright Robert Schenkkan followed LBJ through his first year in office: the accidental presidency, the landslide victory against Goldwater, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In its sequel, The Great Society, he picks up right where he left off: battling with Martin Luther King (Grantham Coleman) and George Wallace (David Garrison), Johnson (Brian Cox) monitors the march in Selma. Despite a divided Democratic Party, and after receiving intense pressure from the SCLC, he manages to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, Robert McNamara (Matthew Rauch) is waiting in the wings, and Johnson, distracted by his domestic agenda, allows his Secretary of Defense to gradually escalate the war in Vietnam.
Unfortunately, The Great Society is a bit of a slog. It doesn’t have the focus of its predecessor, as it attempts to cover too much ground in too little time: in contrast to the single-year time frame of All the Way, this one begins in January 1965 and ends around November 1968. The first act is mostly about the president’s relationship to King, and King’s relationship Ralph Abernathy (Ty Jones), Bob Moses (Tramell Tillman), and Stokely Carmichael (Marchánt Davis), as well as other civil rights leaders, but Schenkkan prepares for Vietnam with a few ominous conversations between the president and McNamara. In the second act, however, Vietnam consumes the drama, and King’s life after the Civil Rights Act is relegated to a reference to his Nobel Peace Prize and a few brief, posthumous lines. What began as a play with two central characters ends with only one. The effect is disappointing and, structurally, somewhat clunky. Surely the story did not end there.
To its credit, the acting is first-rate. Cox and Coleman are playing men with distinct and separate private and public lives. Avoiding caricature, both master the swaggering gravitas of their characters’ personas while managing to suggest—rather than indicate—inner turmoil. It is no small feat to play such historical giants with equal force and subtlety, or even to relax into such iconic personalities. By the end of the play, President-elect Richard Nixon (Garrison) is testing out the chair in the Oval Office, and Schenkkan can’t resist the low-hanging fruit: “What America wants,” he lectures Johnson, “is honest government.” Garrison’s performance, which relies on jowl-shaking clichés, is out of place among his more measured co-stars. Can he really be blamed? These actors deserve better writing.