“Everybody wants power; and if they say they don’t, they’re lying,” Bryan Cranston snarls in “All The Way,” Robert Schenkkan’s play about President Lyndon Baines Johnson now opened on Broadway. “But everybody thinks it ought to be given out free of charge, like Mardi Gras beads, especially to them, because, of course, they’re going to do Good with it. Nothing comes free. Nothing. Not even Good. Especially not Good.”
It’s something that Walter White from “Breaking Bad” might say. But of course, anything Bryan Cranston says for a while will sound like something that his character Walter White might say, to a public who just spent five years watching with fascination as he morphed from a mild-mannered chemistry teacher with cancer into a vicious drug kingpin. Thanks to his role in that television show, which ended in September, Cranston himself now has power — star power. And, one can argue persuasively, he is using his star power for Good, debuting on Broadway in what is essentially a staged lesson in history and politics.
And yes, Good doesn’t come free. Without Cranston, it seems unlikely that Broadway theatergoers would be paying a top ticket price of $225 to sit through three hours of historical reenactments, with 20 actors portraying more than 50 characters in some of the crises and conflicts in the first 11 months of LBJ’s presidency.
We first see LBJ on the day of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination sitting uncomfortably in an airplane seat under a bright narrow light front and center stage, having a nightmare. It’s not long, though, before he takes charge of the nation, addressing the a joint session of Congress, urging them to pass a civil rights bill that Kennedy had introduced. “I’m going to out-Roosevelt Roosevelt and out-Lincoln Lincoln,” he says privately afterwards to liberal Sen. Hubert Humphrey (Robert Petkoff), his future Vice President, but he tells his old mentor Georgia Senator Richard Russell (John McMartin), he’s just throwing the Liberals a bone. We are left immediately with a question: Is LBJ pushing for the bill out of conviction or because he thinks it will help him get elected 11 months hence?
It is a question “All The Way” doesn’t fully answer – although historians tilt towards the former — as we see LBJ focus on both passing the bill and getting elected with great mastery, working the phone, using flattery and threats, seduction and bullying, appealing to vanity or party loyalty or patriotism, applying his unparalleled knowledge of legislative maneuvering and resorting to two-faced lying – although we’re not always sure to whom he’s lying and to whom he’s telling the truth.
It’s the kind of political performance art at which LBJ excelled, and Cranston rips into it with glee, part of his own masterful performance as one of the most complicated and contradictory political figures of the 20th century; we’re also treated to LBJ’s rages, good ol’ country boy humor, crudeness and generosity, self-pity and deep convictions. What is missing is the sanctimonious humble servant mien LBJ put on for many of his speeches; Cranston’s LBJ gives only fiery and eloquent speeches.
It is a largely satisfying portrait, not just for Cranston’s fans, although they are sure to be especially tickled by the moments of explosive intensity that recalls Walter White’s ”Heisenberg” alter ego.
But this is far from a one-man, or one-issue, show. Among the other events given their own scenes:
Martin Luther King, Jr. (Brandon J. Dirden ), argues with other civil rights leaders not just over LBJ’s intentions, but about the most effective strategies for the Civil Rights Movement. There are also scenes between King and his wife Coretta (Roslyn Ruff)
FBI director J Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean) wiretaps Martin Luther King, and tries to destroy him, escalating when King is awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Alabama Governor George Wallace (Rob Campbell) campaigns to become President
Three young civil rights workers are murdered in Mississippi, outraging the African-Americans of the nation.
Following these killings, there is a battle to seat the integrated Mississippi Freedom Party in place of the state’s all-white official delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (James Eckhouse) tells LBJ of the incident in Southeast Asia that will eventually escalate into the Vietnam War
Much of this is catnip to history buffs and students of politics. Indeed, “All The Way” won one of the first $100,000 Edward M. Kennedy Prizes for Drama Inspired by American History, the judges praising the play’s examination of “the personal sacrifices, moral compromises, and political cost” of achieving the “monumental shift” that occurred during the era.
Those of us who sat through the other LBJ play, The Great Society, which was Off-Broadway (and for a time was also aiming for a Broadway run), know how much more unfocused and pedantic “All The Way” could have been
But my increasing annoyance at Christopher Acebo’s set eventually tipped me off to what I saw as the major limitation of “All The Way.” The set of bulky desks and benches all connected to one another looks like both Congressional Chambers and a jury room. I suspect this is meant as a metaphor, especially since the cast stays seated on those benches even when they’re not involved in the scene: They are the participants of history, the witnesses of it, and the jury judging it as well. This is fine, except that the presence of this big bulky apparatus, its permanence, became distracting.
“Breaking Bad” was often compared to a Shakespearean tragedy. The fascination of Walter White was seeing him change before our eyes. In “All The Way,” we don’t get that opportunity with LBJ. Though mercurial, adjusting his behavior depending on who he is talking to and what he wants from them, LBJ seems no different at the beginning of the play as at the end. His interior life, to the extent we get a glimpse of it, is as permanent as those benches. In lieu of drama or tragedy, “All The Way” offers us some fascinating facts, delivered by some fine actors.
All The Way
Neil Simon Theater
Written by Robert Schenkkan
Directed by Bill Rauch
Set design by Christopher Acebo, costume design by Deborah M. Dryden, lighting design by Jane Cox, composition and sound design by Paul James Prendergast, video projections by Shawn Sagady, the projection design consultant is Wendall K. Harrington, hair & wig design is by Paul Huntley, sound consultant iby Peter Fitzgerald. The dramaturg is Tom Bryant and casting is by Telsey + Company William Cantler, CSA.
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Eric Lenox Abrams, Betsy Aidem, J. Bernard Calloway,Rob Campbell, Brandon J. Dirden, James Eckhouse, Peter Jay Fernandez, Christopher Gurr, William Jackson Harper, Michael McKean, John McMartin, Christopher Liam Moore, Robert Petkoff, Ethan Phillips, Richard Poe ,Roslyn Ruff, Susannah Schulman, Bill Timoney and Steve Vinovich.
“All The Way” is set to run through June 29, 2014