by: JK Clarke

Lyndon Baines Johnson is easily one of the most overlooked American Presidents of the modern era. Sandwiched between JFK’s assassination and Nixon’s Watergate- and resignation- smeared administration, LBJ’s story, at first glance, seems relatively inconsequential. Furthermore, within his administration his vast domestic civil rights accomplishments were overwhelmingly overshadowed by his reluctant (and misguided) escalation of the Vietnam War. This week marks the 48th Anniversary of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965, which sought to ensure African Americans’ (and all Americans’) rights at the polls, which had been ensured by the 15th Amendment, but manipulated and voided by regional figures like racist Governor George Wallace of Alabama — and continue to be challenged to this day. In timely fashion, The Great Society, now at The Clurman on West 42nd Street’s Theater Row, specifically addresses the stürm and drang of the Johnson administration, highlighting his monumental accomplishments, grand mistakes and personal quirks.

Mitch Tebo’s portrayal of Lyndon Baines Johnson is spot on in almost every aspect — look, dress and demeanor — except Johnson’s Texan drawl (and thank goodness for that, or this nearly three hour production would’ve been a full four hours); his conversational speaking actually smacked more of Peter Sellers’ portrayal of President Merkin Muffley in Dr. Strangelove than LBJ. But his Presidential addresses, on the other hand, were remarkably authentic.

With a Who’s Who cast of notable historical figures and prominent politicians, the play is dialog heavy and frequently complexly expository. There’s a lot of scene setting to do in order to get the main thrust of the story across, but it feels a bit excessive at times. We get a particularly good feel of raw southern political bigotry through Jeff Burchfield’s terrific portrayal of both Senator Strom Thurmond and Governor George Wallace; Charles Gray is impressive as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s thoughtful adviser Bayard Rustin; and Reed Armstrong is an absolute dead ringer for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

Michael Minahan’s scenic design is appropriately Presidential (the Oval Office, being the primary setting), while not ostentatious or exaggerated. The production did suffer a bit from the short, staccato and loud music breaks between scenes which felt both unnecessary and out of place.

If you’re fond of historical reenactments that delve into the deepest of detail, The Great Society is for you. But hold on to your Johnson, because it’s gonna be a long, bumpy night.

The Great Society. Through August 24 at the Clurman Theater, 410 West 42nd Street (at 9th Avenue). www.YorkShakespeare.org