Reporting From Broadway: And ‘The Great Society’ offers Part II of Schenkkan’s LBJ plays

‘The Michaels’ Blends Drama & Dance




As much as I’ve enjoyed many a repast with “The Apple Family,” and “The Gabriels,” mealtime at “The Michaels” is among the most gratifying experiences I’ve had. Home baked bread, local cheeses, and Kate’s crepes are all divine, though by the end of the evening they’ve hardly been touched. Still, it’s a meal befitting a Chekhovian toast.

The beauty of Richard Nelson’s work, his parody of dramatic realism, is at its finest in this production. As the play opens, Kate delivers the props, and sets the stage — the dinner table — while David Michael describes the actors in a play setting the stage.

In this new work, subtitled “Conversations During Difficult Times,” currently at Nelson’s theatrical home, The Public Theater, the conversation is about dance and how it can be about “human movements. Not artificial ones.” Rose Michael, a choreographer, and the central character, creates dances with simple actions, based on mundane tasks, such as vacuuming, carrying a jug of water, and cooking.

At the same time, the drama on stage focuses on “normal human movement,” namely the twists and turns of the psyche. It’s how we react to our most pressing issues, and problems. While the play is a reflection on death, it also talks about immigration, the Klansmen, women-owned dance studios, and a man described as “Fat. Funny colored hair. A total clown. With tantrums and hamburgers . . . Grabbing at girls’ . . .” It’s the kind of everyday conversation with which the playwright is obviously familiar.

Brought together by the dinner, the event expands into a dance performance, underlaid by conversation, reminiscences, and observations mostly about Rose. In this role, Brenda Wehle gives a mesmerizing performance as the retired choreographer nearing the end of her life. Like the Obie-Award winning Wehle, Rose has lived a daring artistic life, about which she is both proud and embittered.

When her obstinate denial of illness leads to a willingness to let go, however, her dependency on others becomes another challenging situation. The mundane tasks she had choreographed become responsibilities others must perform for her. As for Rose, a demanding nature is her signature. She’s also thorny and egocentric, albeit brilliant, and very tuned in to the people around her.

As a director of his own work, Nelson paces the production dramatically, like the soup simmering on the stove top. Even though the characters are facing an urgent situation, the conversation is ambling, the actors speak in whispers. Tensions often rise from them playing the opposite of the situation.

Rose’s daughter, Lucy, is especially troubled. Devoted to learning all of her mother’s dances so she can carry on in her footsteps, she lives to please her perfectionist mother, to carry her torch, and to fulfill a sense of promise. Here, Charlotte Bydwell dances beautifully while delivering a sensitive character portrayal.

As is his wont, Jay Sanders (David), Rose’s ex-husband and her producer, makes the everyday a little bit unforgettable. His understated manner and natural demeanor bring the seemingly mundane to life easily, yet vividly.

Like Sanders, Maryann Plunkett (Kate) has appeared in Nelson’s “The Gabriels,” and “The Apple Family” plays. Here, as a crusty retired teacher and vulnerable caregiver, she faces a conflict between her desire to fulfill herself, and the demands others are suddenly making on her. In this respect, she carries the weight of the drama.

The others are, in one sense or another, dancers. As a performer from Rose’s old company, Haviland Morris is dainty and beguiling. Matilda Sakamoto is fetching as the daughter of Rose’s indigent sister. She also performs one of Rose’s works. And Rita Wolf as Rose’s former dancer now married to her ex-husband, David, can gives us cause to feel a bit agitated at times.

As with Nelson’s previous family dramas, “The Michaels” is set in Rhinebeck, NY. Jason Ardizzone-West’s scenic design of a country kitchen is set into the three-sided stage with the audience in tiers above it. The choreography, based on works by the legendary Dan Wagoner, is delightful. Accompanied by beautiful music, especially Katie Herzig’s “Best Day of Your Life,” the production is graceful. As with the best dances, it helps us look inward.

The Great Society

Given the state of political gridlock and partisan politics we’re in, Robert Schenkkan’s “The Great Society – Part II of The LBJ Plays” is a timely production, currently at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beautmont Theater. Set during LBJ’s administration, Schenkkan expounds on Part I of his work, “All The Way,” which played on Broadway starring Bryan Cranston in 2014.

Here, Brian Cox portrays Lyndon Johnson. Cox, known for his portrayal of King Lear with The Royal Shakespeare Company is something of a celebrity currently, for his role as a bastardly media mogul on HBO’s “Succession.” An actor accustomed to playing powerful, albeit tragically flawed characters, Cox brings a kind of quotidian ease to this enormous role. Still, he drives this impactful show with urgency, achieving the sense of volition which characterized President Johnson’s administration. Here, as in history, one can see how much LBJ got done. And to a greater extent, how he became undone.

In “All The Way,” we met Johnson in his first year in office, smiling, greeting, and playing the good old boys network of friends and foes, with enormous gusto. It ends after his first year in office, with the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. In “The Great Society,” Schenkkan examines more closely the political environment of Johnson’s administration from 1965 on, with all of its damning consequences.

Both the Vietnam war and the Civil Rights movement take center stage. Projections (Victoria Sagady) from news reportage of the ‘60s bring the story home to us in the audience, just as they did for TV viewers of the time. Most noteworthy, a ticker above the stage counts the death toll in Vietnam. By the end of Johnson’s administration in 1968, where the play ends, the ticker count reads 38,620 American dead in Vietnam, and 192,616 wounded.

The setting by David Korins, is basically the same as in “All The Way,” an open playing area that looks like Congress Hall with bull pens — benches and wooden chairs for the actors waiting in the background. By the end of the play, however, the stage has been torn down, leaving just a set of stairs.

To open this historical drama, Cox (Johnson) tells an inspirational story about the triumph of a rodeo cowboy. We get a quick glimpse of the man, before the narrative turns quickly to his Congressional address. “The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all! It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice. We need a program to ensure every American child a quality education. We need a national health insurance plan for our seniors. We need a national effort to improve our inner cities and we need the elimination of every remaining obstacle to the right and the opportunity to VOTE!”

That debate continues to rage. We hear it in the Democratic Presidential debates currently on television. Indeed, Bill Rauch, who also directed “All The Way,” drives the production with a sense of moral purpose about living in our democracy. That it is driven by the people, and that participation is our responsibility.

The well-honed cast includes Richard Thomas as Hubert Humphrey. The vice president who stood by Johnson’s side looks haggardly at the world. His defeat by Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential race marks the end of the play.

It’s an imposing cast. Grantham Coleman’s insightful portrayal of Martin Luther King and Merchant Davis as a threatening Stokely Carmichael give stand out performances. Broadway stalwarts, Bryce Pinkham as Robert F. Kennedy, Barbara Garrick as Lady Bird, and Marc Kudish and Frank Wood in a variety of roles keep the intense pace of history marching.