The Great Society
Years ago, an actor friend of mine was regaling a small group of us with what would become one of my favorite theater stories so far. He was playing a doctor in one of the Chekhov plays, and owing either to his opinion of Chekhov or to the quality of the production, he found himself bored onstage.
"I don't say anything for a while," he thought, "so what if I just close my eyes for a bit while all these other people are talking. I'll tilt my head down so nobody sees what I'm doing. Everyone will just think I'm nodding in profound agreement."
When he next looked up, he found the rest of the cast staring awkwardly at him, ad-libbing even more awkward dialogue asking if he had anything to add.
"I had fallen asleep in the middle of my own play!" he exclaimed, as I wiped astonished tears of laughter from my cheeks.
This story echoed back to me as I sat through Alexander Harrington's play, "The Great Society," now in performance at Theatre Row courtesy of the York Shakespeare Company. Billed as a "soaring, searing new drama," it is really neither of those things, and one should not operate heavy machinery after watching it.
It boils down to a view of the 1960s as seen by Lyndon Johnson, who was president for most of it. It's a chronicle of his simultaneous struggles to pass civil rights legislation and manage the Vietnam War, as well as socially engineer American life in an effort to outperform every president from Lincoln to Kennedy (especially Kennedy).
In his spare time, LBJ also obsesses over feelings of resentment towards what he sees as ingratitude and betrayal on the part of the country.
You can imagine how overwritten it is. They say that watching laws get passed is like watching sausage being made. This production wants to prove that true, but it forgot to bring the blood and guts.
Despite a respectable Oval Office set designed by Michael Minihan, almost every scene has someone say, "Gentlemen, sit down." And then they do, forever, while seeming to quote passages from the Congressional Record.
Transitions play like musical chairs, with surplus cast members (which are many) replacing and rearranging a variety of furniture pieces. This is apparently where director Seth Duerr focused most of his attention, and auditions must have been held at an Ethan Allen.
A couple of choice performances valiantly attempts to make the play into something better than it is, but the water is just too deep to save everyone. The play name-drops almost every political figure from the era (excepting anyone who was still alive as of 2012. Lead producer Albert Podell is a retired lawyer).
If it had been staged at Disney World's Hall of Presidents, we'd all agree that the animatronics were impressive. But with flesh and blood humans in the roles, we have to expect something more.
As LBJ, Mitch Tebo has a reedier voice and much cleaner articulation than the original Johnson, who always sounded like he had a mouth full of mud. But by the end of the first act, his approximation of the president is nothing short of convincing, even bold. Tebo appears to be working overtime, with a stroke-worthy intensity.
We wonder if the effort might be in response to Podell's public musings about transferring the show to Broadway, complete with a star to replace his current lead. It was a pretty thoughtless thing to say to someone with a pad and pencil, and deserves a thoughtful, considered response:
If "The Great Society" does manage to transfer to Broadway, it probably still won't be worth seeing. Mitch Tebo in something else, however, probably would.
As the other iconic figure in the play, Martin Luther King, Curtis Wiley has less success and plays the role as if he's always giving a speech. As Bayard Rustin, Charles Gray has a voice and facility with language worthy of the finest Shakespeare, but it feels out of place in this play, as Harrington has given him random soliloquies when simple statements would do.
In an ill-considered scene, Johnson's men approach King and Rustin to discuss some pressing business. To demonstrate the lateness of the hour, Duerr and costumer Sean Sullivan have the latter two emerge alone and in sleepwear, prompting us to wonder what they were doing in there. Rustin was gay, but there is no evidence he had a romantic relationship with King. It is also unlikely that the two men would argue spontaneously in front of others.
Yaakov Sullivan deserves an honorable mention and tends to snap us out of our drowsiness whenever he appears.
Another LBJ play is being developed at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, also with Broadway intentions. They have nothing to fear from "The Great Society." But if Podell and company would like to be more of a threat, they can try two things:
Refashion the play into a one-man show for Mitch Tebo; or, narrow the narrative down to the relationship between Johnson and King. The last scene between them was the strongest one in the play, and has the most potential.
In the meantime, feel free to tilt one's head and take a nap.
"The Great Society" runs until August 24 at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street in Manhattan. For tickets and info call 1-800-447-7400 or visit www.yorkshakespeare.org.