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Now Opening: ‘The Great Society’ Starring Brian Cox on Broadway

Category Broadway

|by Ron Fassler |

The continuation of Bryan Cranston’s Tony-winning turn as LBJ

Though extremely common in movies, it is rare on Broadway that a play prompts a sequel a few years later. But many playwrights have found more stories to tell when the characters intrigue them, such as Eugene O’Neill utilizing characters from Long Day’s Journey into Night for A Moon for the Misbegotten and Neil Simon’s alliterative trilogy Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound, that followed the playwright’s alter-ego Eugene Jerome. Lillian Hellman did the reverse, when she crafted a drama that took the Hubbard family back in time for Another Part of the Forest, a prequel to The Little Foxes. Now Robert Schenkkan is continuing his dramatization of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, having previously won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Play for All the Way. The Great Society, which opens tonight at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, begins where All the Way left off, with Johnson elected in a historic landslide in 1964. His administration was later effectively demolished by Vietnam and the non-stop turbulence of a war-torn presidency.

‘The Great Society,’ a sequel to ‘All the Way,’ opens Oct. 1, 2019 at Lincoln Center (Photo: Lincoln Center)

‘The Great Society,’ a sequel to ‘All the Way,’ opens Oct. 1, 2019 at Lincoln Center (Photo: Lincoln Center)

Previously played by Bryan Cranston, who in his Broadway debut won the Tony for Best Actor in a Play, The Great Society employs the Scottish actor Brian Cox, who is currently earning critical praise as Logan Roy, the patriarch of the family at the core of HBO’s hit series Succession. Long a staple of the British stage, Cox is just the type of actor necessary to portray a towering figure such as Johnson. It is no coincidence that among his many credits are the role of Hannibal Lecktor (the first on-screen appearance of the character in 1986’s Manhunter) and King Lear on the London stage. As LBJ, a contentious bully as well as a master politician, Cox must forcefully convey the influence Johnson had that allowed him to persuade bigoted southern Democrats to go his way on civil rights, even if he subsequently lost the forest for trees when he doubled – and then tripled – down on the Vietnam war. His fall was grand, hitting Shakespearean heights, so it’s little wonder Schenkkan has gone back to the well in hopes of bringing the drama to its conclusion. And in Cox, a Shakespeare veteran, this production may have found the perfect interpreter to bring Johnson’s charismatic magnetism to life.

The characters who are part of the Johnson years make up a who’s who of American politics in the 1960s, and they are all included in the play. Grantham Coleman is Martin Luther King, Jr.; Richard Thomas is Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Marc Kudisch is Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, Gordon Clapp is J. Edgar Hoover, Bryce Pinkham is Robert F. Kennedy, Frank Wood is Senator Everett Dirksen, Marchant Davis is Stokely Carmichael, Barbara Garrick is Ladybird Johnson, Ty Jones is Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Matthew Rauch is Robert McNamara, Angela Pierce is Pat Nixon, Nikkole Salter is Coretta Scott King and David Garrison is Richard Nixon. And that’s not even the whole cast, who all play multiple roles.

The play also touches on the civil rights march on Selma, the Los Angeles Watts riots, the assassinations of MLK and RFK, and the ever-escalating war in Vietnam. The Great Society is an epic drama that was originally designed as three acts with a running time of more than three hours (and two intermissions). The version that opens Oct. 1 on Broadway clocks in at 2 hours 45 minutes with one intermission. If that feels too long for a play, take into account that it covers four monumental years that changed the course of American history. The portrait that Schenkkan must paint can’t be done in broad strokes. Slow and steady should win the race.

The Great Society previously premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2014, later playing at Seattle Rep in 2015, and opens Oct. 1 at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center. It is scheduled to run through Nov. 30.

For more of the best of Broadway this season, check out our list of the Top Shows in New York in October 2019

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