By Elizabeth Ahlfors
In Robert Schenkkan’s All The Way, Bryan Cranston grasps the role of President Lyndon B. Johnson and doesn’t let go for almost three hours. No easy task. LBJ, who called himself “the accidental President”, was a big Texan with a ten-gallon hat and a ten-gallon mouth. He sweet-talked, bullied and threatened his way through political quagmires, first in Congress as a memorable Senate Majority leader and in 1963 as President after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. When he inherited the top office, he faced a whole new deskful of problems but focused on just one.
Now at the Neal Simon Theatre, All The Way deals with the year, November 1963 to November 1964, when LBJ launched the intense battle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and made his major mark on the presidency.
Schenkkan (Pulitzer Prize winner for The Kentucky Cycle) used transcripts from the period, creating a strong character study and an edge-of-the-seat thriller. Fascinating to watch is the conniving strategy of deal-making with major political leaders and passionate agendas, wheeling and dealing to lure legislators across the aisle and bypass racial protests. Interactions with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Senators Hubert H. Humphrey and Richard Russell, Gov. George Wallace and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was a cunning game between master politicians, and no one was more masterly than Johnson. “It’s not personal, it’s just politics” was his motto.
Director Bill Rauch (Oregon Shakespeare Festival) leads the action like a symphony conductor, drawing together the huge cast of players, many doubling up their roles, to display clear identities for the various characters. With all the discerning personalities and the express action, the almost three hour show moves seamlessly.
Bryan Cranston stepped from TV stardom (Breaking Bad) into the Oval Office of major theater acclaim with energy and nuance. In his Broadway debut, Cranston seems at home and delivers an authoritative interpretation of the commander-in-chief. Not as tall as LBJ, he nails his mannerisms, coarse speech, his betrayals, sentimentality and fierce appetite for politics. Cranston fearlessly wears everything on his sleeve, physically and vocally, in the glare of his eyes, the tears wetting his face, outbursts of emotion, humor, insecurities and persistence. No one gets in his way to success, not his closest allies, not his wife. It is a state-of-the-art performance.
Everyone except Cranston is a supporting player but there are numerous standouts. As Rev. King, Brandon J. Dirden, holding forth with much of King’s captivating cadence, is as determined as Johnson but far more finely-contained. Robert Petkoff portrays the long-suffering, liberal Humphrey, a decent politico who watches LBJ dangle the carrot of a future Vice Presidency if he plays the game. John McMartin is cunning as segregationist, Sen. Richard Russell, and the always effective Michael McKean delivers a chilling characterization of J. Edgar Hoover. Rob Campbell physically resembles George Wallace and deftly portrays his racist zeal.
Almost a decade before the Women’s Movement gained force, the All the Way female contingent was on key as supportive political wives, often ignored or berated by their husbands.
Christopher Acebo smoothly shifts around the various minimalist settings. Deborah M. Dryden dresses the women in ’60’s dresses with Paul Huntley’s changes of well-sprayed wigs distinguishing characters, and the men’s ties are always narrow.
“Happy Days are Here Again!” That was the theme song in the 1964 election, but the melody ended quickly for three major players. While President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Bill, something no President achieved before him, he lost his Southern Democratic base. Rev. King achieved progress for his people, but without voting rights. In addition, his wife was sent revealing tapes of his misdeeds. Alabama Governor George Wallace was pondering his next move after this term. Before the end of the decade, President Johnson would not run again for office, assassins killed Rev. King and in 1972, George Wallace was shot and paralyzed.
All the Way opened March 6, 2014 and closes June 29, 2014. Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St. New York, NY. Two hours, 50 minutes with intermission. www.allthewaybroadway.com
Photos: Eugenia Eliseeva
https://www.theaterpizzazz.com/bryan-cranston-comes-way-broadway/ (interviews with the cast pre opening)