According to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 1976 biography, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, LBJ as a boy was terrified by a recurring nightmare: He was paralyzed, sitting on a chair in an open field and facing a cattle stampede. This nightmare could be seen as a prophetic metaphor for Johnson’s one full term as president: Trying to build his grand domestic program while simultaneously upping the country’s military involvement in Southeast Asia, he was overrun by political forces and events that galloped out of control.
This is playwright Robert Schenkkan’s follow-up to his Tony-winning All the Way, which starred Bryan Cranston (also Tony winning) as Johnson from 1963, when as vice president he succeeded the assassinated John F. Kennedy, to his landslide win over Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964. The two plays are structured similarly. The stage is crowded with a large cast of characters drawn from the history of the era: Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, George Wallace, Richard Nixon. These were powerful, articulate men who, one would imagine, didn’t mind taking the occasional long meeting, or jawboning on the phone. Here they never stop rushing around, as if the curtain will descend before they’re compelled to act out every red-letter headline until Johnson, shaken by his faltering support, brings down the circus tent by declining to seek a second term.
Great Society is so telegraphically busy you dwell more than you really ought to on the rare bits of stage business that are slow — Lady Bird (Barbara Garrick), for instance, stepping into the Oval Office with a cupcake, or a flower-child protester who at one point sits down on the floor to the president’s right and doesn’t budge for minutes. Yes, it’s obvious that she represents the young, alienated, anti-war generation. For a long time, though, she looks like a countercultural yoga student.
Cox, who in his career has played everyone from Hannibal Lecter to Winston Churchill to Lear, doesn’t look much like Johnson, and he’s not trying to. He’s a compactly built man with regular features — he looks more like Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey (who’s played by Richard Thomas). Johnson, on the other hand, suggested a hound dog that had taught itself to walk on its hind legs.
Should the lack of impersonation matter? It doesn’t have to, but it does, especially when David Garrison’s Nixon and Bryce Pinkham’s Robert Kennedy are instantly identifiable caricatures. Cox has brusque, punchy energy. He can thunder with a king’s power and howl with a titan’s rage. At other times he’s more like an executive who’s sick and tired of boardroom fighting but not ready for his severance package. What Johnson actually was is hard to pin down — a hollow colossus, a giant ego, a black hole of need and want, a master manipulator, a bleeding heart. But he was neither king nor salesman: He was an American president. Somehow he’s gotten away from this play. B