NEW YORK – “All the Way,” playing at the Neil Simon Theatre on West 52nd Street, is playwright Robert Schenkkan’s look at President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s first year in office – 1963-64 – as the 36th president of the United States, after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
At 1 p.m. on Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy was declared dead and, 98 minutes later, in the cabin of Air Force One, Vice President Johnson, with Lady Bird, his aides and the newly widowed Mrs. Kennedy witnessing, took the oath of office for the presidency, which at the time, a political reporter remarked, he could not have won on his own.
Although Mr. Schenkkan’s play has an effective first act, which is mainly concerned with passing the Civil Rights Act and the upset it causes white Southerners, the second half of the play unfortunately falters into melodrama with the reenactment of the voting rights bill and Johnson’s contentious political campaign for reelection to the presidency in the fall of 1964.
What saves “All the Way” is a winning performance by Bryan Cranston, who, as President Lyndon Johnson, performs with dazzling acting distinction. Mr. Cranston doesn’t look any more like Johnson than Frank Langella looked like Nixon in “Frost/Nixon” a few years ago. But he is an actor, and by slicking back his gray hair, wearing a pair of Johnson’s circa 1963 glasses and belting his pants high, he gives himself some of the president’s girth. He also acquires Johnson’s slouchy walking gait and affects his country boy Texas drawl with ease. When the lights shine on him, center stage, he is L.B.J.
There is a series of scenes played against a Congressional-looking set with background projections that tell the locations and timeframe of where we are; I guess director Bill Rauch thinks it helps to move the play along, providing theatrical excitement that keeps the play afloat and moving.
“All the Way” is Mr. Cranston’s Broadway debut, though he has acted regionally around the country in productions of Shakespeare, Ibsen and Neil Simon, and his television work on “Breaking Bad” has brought him great fame and many kudos.
We have been told Johnson was a man who had hated being vice president. He said it had been like political death to be reduced to presiding as a figurehead over the Senate he once controlled as majority leader. The minute he steps into the Oval Office, you can feel his natural power take over.
Johnson is quoted as saying “There is no place for ‘nice’ in a knife fight” in politics. We see that he can give friends and enemies a rough time if they disagree with his ideas. But, for the most part, Mr. Schenkkan is easy on Johnson’s behavior during his first year in office. Johnson was concerned with the anguish the country had endured from the assassination, and he was trying to somehow bring it back together again. We must remember that Vietnam was hardly a cloud on the horizon, and most of the political traducers who were waiting for him to make a false move would have to wait until after the election.
At its worst, the play’s episodes seem clumsily contrived, but there are moments of humor. Johnson was fond of ribald language and dirty stories. Mr. Cranston gives a layered performance that is a marvel of subtlety and gets every big and little truth of the politician onto the stage. His technique is to manifest his heart, mind and soul into what Johnson felt. His quick facial expressions and the tone of his voice are perfect instruments for his down-home Texas politician. He loves peppering serious political discussions with local adages from his childhood. He can be a boyish optimist one moment and an impulsive or bewildered lost soul seconds later.
All the characters from Johnson’s political gallery make appearances, like J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean), Martin Luther King Jr. (Brandon T. Dirden), Governor George Wallace (Rob Campbell) and Roy Wilkins (Peter Jay Fernandez). Regrettably, most are quick walk-ons that don’t get much character development by Mr. Schenkken. He does give up a couple of hilarious moments to Senator Richard Russell (D-Georgia), acted by the fine John McMartin, who opposes Johnson’s Civil Rights Act, and Hubert Humphrey (D-Minnesota) played by Robert Petkoff, whom Johnson has fun torturing with hopes of choosing him as his future vice president.
“All the way” never completely satisfies and the play tends to dissipate, piling Johnson’s plots on plots and tricks on tricks, weakening the impact of L.B.J.’s story. But Mr. Cranston’s performance is like a marvelous solo show that never grows tiresome. His presence, expertise and taste never flag, making him the hands-down acting winner of the theatrical season.
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.