Not every success story gets a sequel. The Great Society, Robert Schenkkan’s follow-up to his Tony-winning play All the Way, renders President Lyndon B Johnson’s second term an overstuffed yet still somewhat tedious office drama. It is less an illuminating history play with fully drawn characters than a dense and particularly animated lesson in facts and figures.
Brian Cox (currently on HBO’s Succession) tackles the beast of a protagonist, a self-sworn man of the people fated to betray them. To Cox’s great credit, Johnson is the sole palpable human to emerge from dialogue otherwise composed of negotiations, politicking and historical exposition among the play’s more than 50 characters. Cox plays a president believably torn between his moral commitment to help those suffering at home and demands that he pursue war in Vietnam.
But rather than investigate this battle of conscience, The Great Society positions it as an occupational hazard. In director Bill Rauch’s production, the office assumes centre stage in David Korns’ puzzling scenic design. While projections and props are used to thinly recreate action beyond the White House, landmark Civil Rights battles feel reduced to administrative matters. Ever-present TV screens and seating for actors on three sides suggest themes of surveillance and perception the production rarely make evident.
Schenkkan, Cox, and an esteemed ensemble distil relevant and complex history into a single evening, just not a particularly entertaining one.