'All the Way': Theater Review

Bryan Cranston All The Way - H 2014

Bryan Cranston All The Way - H 2014

Notable figures from 20th century American political history crowd the stage, but the main attraction is unquestionably Bryan Cranston’s charismatic LBJ.

Bryan Cranston bites into the flavorful role of Lyndon B. Johnson in Robert Schenkkan's bio-drama, the actor's first major outing since wrapping "Breaking Bad."

The Actor Formerly Known as Walter White takes a scintillating turn in his first major post-Breaking Bad role, grappling with the infinite contradictions of America’s 36th President, Lyndon Baines Johnson. In a riveting Broadway debut, Bryan Cranston’s ferociously human character study elevates and invigorates All the Way, Robert Schenkkan’s dense political history lesson about the tumultuous year during which LBJ ascended from the VP spot in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and successfully ran for re-election after pushing through the controversial Civil Rights Act.

Fictional Washington television drama from The West Wing to Scandal to House of Cards has redefined our expectations for insider White House access, making this methodically constructed play at times seem a starchy excursion, over-encumbered by copiously detailed research and historical walk-ons. But in Bill Rauch’s fluid production – first seen at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and then at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. – it’s related with an impassioned clarity that keeps it compelling, even at close to three hours.

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More than 40 real-life characters weave in and out of the wooden benches of designer Christopher Acebo’s congressional arena, enhanced by projections to specify time and place. That white-collar gladiatorial ring is a fitting setting for a yearlong cage match in which Johnson maneuvers between uncompromising liberal forces on one side and bigoted legislators on the other, encountering the staunchest opposition within his own party.

A Pulitzer winner in 1992 for The Kentucky Cycle, Schenkkan writes with unequivocal affection for Johnson and admiration for his tenacity, but not to the extent of turning this into reverential hagiography. The “accidental president,” as he bitterly describes himself in the interim between JFK’s assassination and his own elected appointment to the Oval Office the following November, knows that politics is a dirty game. He’s unafraid to roll up his sleeves and get down in the mud, often snarling like a dog in a fight. That affords Cranston ample room to explore the ambiguities of Johnson’s convictions. His wily characterization straddles the gray area between LBJ’s firm belief that Civil Rights’ time had come, and his cynical understanding that the popular bill was his likeliest path to re-election.

While Cranston is not far in years from the character as portrayed, men in their mid-fifties seemed older a half-century ago than they do today, and the actor effectively ages himself. With his legs planted wide apart, his hands on his hips, and his jaw locked forward in determination, he’s the picture of the pugnacious good ole boy who began life as a humble Texas farm kid and refuses to be intimidated by his more cultivated D.C. colleagues. But beneath that authoritative stance, the folksy delivery and the unapologetically crude humor, there’s a self-pitying chip on Johnson’s shoulder that humanizes this portrayal. Even when his strong-arm tactics are at their most ruthless or his personal manner most abrupt, Cranston’s nuanced characterization keeps us in his corner.

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If no other performance in the ensemble matches the lead’s bristling vitality, that’s perhaps inevitable given the condensed nature of the action and the exhaustive ground covered in Schenkkan’s plotting. The production nonetheless boasts solid character work from a capable cast.

Among the most substantial secondary roles, Hubert Humphrey (Robert Petkoff) is depicted as an ethical man continually backed into a corner, with Johnson dangling the Vice Presidency to help the well-liked Senator overcome his squeamishness. Martin Luther King Jr. (Brandon J. Dirden) is as much as an antagonist as an ally, interpreting LBJ’s removal of voting rights as a sign that the Civil Rights bill will be gutted like it was in ’57.

One of the key subplots tracks the efforts of J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean) to smear King as a Communist fraternizer; the FBI director is also not averse to using blackmail to out-manipulate the president. Some of Johnson’s juiciest clashes are with his old friend and advisor Richard Russell (John McMartin), whose ingrained racism is underlined a touch heavy-handedly by having the legislator and his cronies discuss strategy while a black shoeshine man crouches at his feet. Some threads seem more essential to the drama than others. An undue amount of time is spent, for instance, on George Wallace (Rob Campbell), whose segregationist position is adequately represented by more central characters.

The play acquires more shading in the second act, when the focus shifts to the election. Racial tensions in the South lead to the killing of three Freedom Riders in Mississippi, and to the arrest and physical abuse of voting-rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer (Roslyn Ruff). And unrest within the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party turns up the dramatic temperature, yielding some of the most emotionally resonant scenes.

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Events in the run-up to the Democratic National Convention also fuel Johnson’s self-doubt, inching him further into isolation. Schenkkan provides a sorrowful illustration of his political pragmatism when LBJ distances himself from Walter Jenkins (Christopher Liam Moore), the long-serving aide who was like a son to him, following Jenkins’ arrest for lewd conduct with another man in a public restroom. A subsequent exchange between Johnson and Hoover about how to detect homosexuals feels too much like a wink at the audience but is amusing nonetheless. Likewise the vehement opposition of Strom Thurmond (Christopher Gurr) to seating MFDP delegates at the DNC, given private revelations that emerged after the Dixiecrat Senator’s death.

The women’s roles are limited in scope, but Betsy Aidem has touching moments as Lady Bird Johnson, loyal and forgiving even when she’s being harshly shoved aside by her husband. The play closes on a bittersweet note, with her urging him to join the election-night victory celebration. His final words both justify the casualties and foreshadow the knives that would come out after him in the Vietnam years.

It will surprise no one in the audience to see politics portrayed as a blood sport punctuated by gridlock, with not even King emerging untarnished in Schenkkan’s analysis. But with Cranston commanding the spotlight throughout, All the Way becomes superior entertainment. Considering we know the outcome, it’s also unexpectedly suspenseful.

Venue: Neil Simon Theatre, New York
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Robert Petkoff, Michael McKean, Brandon J. Dirden, John McMartin, Betsy Aidem, Christopher Liam Moore, Roslyn Ruff, Richard Poe, Eric Lenox Abrams, J. Bernard Calloway, Rob Campbell, James Eckhouse, Peter Jay Fernandez, Christopher Gurr, William Jackson Harper, Ethan Phillips, Susannah Schulman, Bill Timoney, Steve Vinovich
Director: Bill Rauch
Playwright: Robert Schenkkan
Set designer: Christopher Acebo
Costume designer: Deborah M. Dryden
Lighting designer: Jane Cox
Music & sound designer: Paul James Prendergast
Projection designer: Shawn Sagady
Produced by The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, American Repertory Theater
Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Louise Gund, Jerry Frankel, Stephanie P. McClelland, Double Gemini Productions, Rebecca Gold, Scott M. Delman, Barbara H. Freitag, Harvey Weinstein, Gene Korf, William Berlind, Luigi Caiola, Gutterman Chernoff, Jam Theatricals, Gabrielle Palitz, Will Trice