The complicated fight for Civil Rights propels Robert Schenkkan’s historical-political drama, All the Way.
After becoming a fan-favorite in his steady HBO gig, Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston is seeking a place for himself on Broadway and his President Lyndon Baines Johnson stakes a claim as one of the biggest stages performances this year – full of grit and vigor — despite veering occasionally toward caricature (always a danger in historical roles like this one).
Where Frank Langella succeeded in breathing new life into the stale character of Richard Nixon in Peter Morgan’s dramatically deft Frost/Nixon, though, Cranston here is armed with a script that never quite allows him to soar. Despite a few more introspective moments that give us a peek into Johnson’s interior life, Schenkkan’s play is a straightforward beltway potboiler more so than a great drama and, as such, lets its star performer down.
The play focuses on Johnson’s first year in office – from November 1963, when he succeeded Kennedy as president following his assassination, through to November 1964, when he won a difficult reelection. Its political plot mirrors that of Spielberg’s Daniel Day-Lewis vehicle, Lincoln, with the first act charting Johnson’s efforts to pass the historic Civil Rights Bill despite many challenges and concessions (including its voting rights provision). In act two, the focus switches, with a degree of deflation, to Johnson’s reelection efforts, which, though intriguing, lack the oomph of his impassioned battle for civil rights legislation.
Bill Rauch directs a cast of twenty (almost unheard of in a new play on Broadway these days) that switches chameleon-like between forty-eight characters, with only a handful of actors taking on only one role. Thankfully, with the aid of clarifying projections, the proceedings are easy enough to follow. Rauch’s efforts, however, are impeded to an extend by an unwieldy arc of onstage House/Senate-style benches that take up much-needed playing space. Though Shawn Sagady’s projections of character names help us follow the plot, his rather cursory projections (of White House interiors, Dr. King’s motel, the Democratic convention, and others) do a less-than-stellar job suggesting most of the play’s settings. Even despite a game cast, one wishes the play’s visuals matched its political punch.
The aforementioned cast is indeed formidable. Betsy Aidem is magnetic as Lady Bird Johnson, L.B.J.’s tough-as-nails-but-not-unshakeable First Lady, and Robert Petkoff is likable and energetic as Senator Hubert Humphrey, his eventual running mate. Michael McKean is an arch, keen-eyed J. Edgar Hoover, and John McMartin excels as wry Southern democratic senator Richard Russell, Johnson’s uncle, with whom he’s subtly at odds more often than not.
The biggest revelation here is Brandon J. Dirden’s take on Martin Luther King, Jr., who, along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, became cautious allies with Johnson in the name of the civil rights cause. Dirden manages to sidestep impersonation in favor of a more complex, more completely-etched portrait of King (certainly more accomplished than Samuel L. Jackson’s take on King a few seasons back in The Mountaintop), providing a solid, strong-voiced center for a play that sometimes wanders. His scenes with the SCLC shed light on the real consequences of the amendments and concessions being lobbed at Johnson’s bill on the Hill and would have provided the source of a perhaps superior play to this one had they been expanded.
As it stands though, All the Way is far from a dud. Even if Cranston’s L.B.J. seems somewhat unreal, he gives a robust, confident, crowd-pleasing performance. The wheeling-dealing Capitol Hill machinations here have, at the play’s best moments, the heat of Frank Underwood’s dirty dealings on Netflix’s House of Cards. It’s only in the play’s quieter moments, when flashes of “the real Johnson” emerge that we wish there was something more here than there is. In spite of this, there’s a value in the “living history” of the play’s events that ought to inspire a greater knowledge of history – and a new discussion of the struggles of the past – both in audiences old enough to have lived through the 1960s America depicted and those born since.