The Mercurial LBJ On Stage
NEW YORK — LYNDON Play by James Prideaux, based on ``Lyndon: An Oral Biography,'' by Merle Miller. Directed by Richard Zavaglia. Starring Laurence Luckinbill.
AFTER a PBS premiere and extensive touring, Laurence Luckinbill has brought his portrait of the 36th American president to the heart of Theater Row. ``Lyndon'' opened the night after the outbreak of the war in the Gulf.
The new attraction at the John Houseman Theatre is an entertaining and sometimes moving sociopolitical drama brought to life by Mr. Luckinbill. In makeup that reportedly takes two hours to apply, Luckinbill bears a startling resemblance to the sharp-featured politician from Texas. His twangy delivery matches the persona.
Under Richard Zavaglia's direction, Luckinbill strides the stage as a man determined and sometimes possessed. (``I can't abide failure.'') His rise from English teacher of underprivileged high schoolers is punctuated with anecdotes, a recurrent focus on civil rights causes that inspired him, and moody reflections on the war.
``Lyndon'' takes place in 1968 in the Oval Office after Johnson's breakfast announcement that he would not seek reelection. Mr. Prideaux's admirable adaptation of Merle Miller's ``Oral Biography'' immediately plunges into a Johnsonian remembrance of things past - a very different view from that taken by biographer Robert A. Caro.
Memories follow of his steady rise as a politician: As vice-president under John F. Kennedy, ``I fetched and toted and I played second fiddle.'' Kennedy's assassination and its aftermath have been sensitively handled by Prideaux and bring out the most affecting aspects of Luckinbill's fine performance. Otherwise, the script moves through a retelling of events leading to the denouement.
The mercurial LBJ is evident throughout. At one moment, he is flying into a rage; the next, he is delivering long-distance kisses to his grandson. While awarding Hubert Humphrey an A-plus for his performance as vice-president, he quips: ``You want to get news out in Washington? Telephone, telegraph, tell Hubert.'' ``Lyndon'' is clearly a fragment of history, but in text and performance it is a rewarding retrospective on a president, his breadth of vision, and his shortcomings.