Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Great Society

The second in this series of plays about LBJ which began with All the Way is now playing in D.C. at the arena and is titled The Great Society. Saw the first play in New York with Bryan Cranston starring. This production has Jack Willis in the lead, and he played the leading role when Arena did All the Way.

The theme of this play is more downbeat. LBJ starts enacting his domestic program but is consumed by Vietnam. Willis is good--he played the bartender in Lynn Nottage's Sweat, in which he excelled. The play, though, does not excite me the way the first one did and it wasn't just Cranston, who is a superb actor.

These plays do convey political history and there are good parts for Martin Luther King and J. Edgar Hoover, especially. But to me, the major shortcoming, and not totally fatal because it was an entertaining evening, arises from the usual rule that sequels don't match originals. The playwright's method is the same, many of the players are the same even if I didn't see the Arena production of the first play.

What of course was fascinating was to see this play in Washington. The audience was older so many likely recalled Lyndon Johnson. I wonder how many younger people have much idea of what he was about. They are unlikely to have plowed through the four volumes (a fifth is forthcoming, we hope) by Robert Caro, now in his late 70s. 

Johnson made the Senate work. Until he let himself be undone by Vietnam, he also managed to get an amazing run of progressive legislation through Congress, at a time when he had to deal with reactionary Southern Democrats still controlling the committees in both houses. In the first play you were shown how he mastered the process. No one since has come close. It is worth remembering him and remembering what he did and what no one else could do, then or now.

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