Bill Rauch’s production of All the Way, the Robert Schenkkan civics lesson that just opened at the Neil Simon Theatre following runs at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the American Repertory Theater, marks the Broadway debut of beloved television actor Bryan Cranston as well as the man he plays, President Lyndon B. Johnson. And by the end of this kinetic, if overstuffed, evening, both will have acquitted themselves quite well.
Running nearly three hours, All the Way is a comparatively thin work next to his Pulitzer Prize-winning nine-play opus, The Kentucky Cycle. What’s more is that it only covers but one year, charting the course of Johnson’s political life between his swearing in following the Kennedy assassination and his first ultimately, only) run for election in 1964. Yet it is rich in detail, allowing for a vivid portrait of the tangled political web concerning the Civil Rights act, and the personalities involved therein.
All the Way begins with Johnson – “the accidental president” – having just been sworn into the highest office in the nation after November 23, 1963’s tragedy, and traces his efforts to galvanize the nation at large and more specifically, pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It’s an act that would both honor the late president and help ensure a victory for himself in November. He appeals to the more conservative Southern congressmen, including Senator Richard “Dick” Russell “(an excellent John McMartin), while sending Sen. Hubert Humphrey (Robert Petkoff) to appeal to the more liberal representatives and civil rights groups. The play’s first act opens the curtain on some of the backroom deal-making and pressuring that led to the legislation’s passage, and the second act examines the consequences.
Rauch’s 20-person ensemble files in and out of Christopher Acebo’s congressional-chamber set, a choice that is at first distractingly chaotic, especially for those who portray multiple roles, but eventually it helps adrenalize the action at the center (Shawn Sagady’s projections add detail at a history class-style level). This is the kind of play that appeals to two audiences, those who already know the facts, and those who either never learned them or forgot them, and in order to broaden the show’s appeal, he has sketched in some extraneous details along the periphery. I disagreed with some of the more personal subplots kept in the play, including the arrest of Johnson aide Walter Jenkins (Christopher Liam Moore) and Martin Luther King Jr.’s infidelity (Brandon J. Dirden nails the great orator’s cadences, but not always his charisma). And for every casting misstep – Michael McKean can’t sell me on his J. Edgar Hoover, and Rob Campbell is forced to treat George Wallace as caricature – there are plenty of underserved performers that I wish we could have seen more of, including Betsy Aidem as both Katharine Graham and Lady Bird Johnson, J. Bernard Calloway as top King advisor Ralph Abernathy, Peter Jay Fernandez as Roy Wilkins, and William Jackson Harper as Stokely Carmichael.
For a historical play, however, and one with a sequel on the way (Schenkkan’s The Great Society is also to follow at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which Rauch runs), All the Way is guilty of several sins of omission: it goes unmentioned that Johnson himself played an integral part in voting down a 1957 version of a Civil Rights bill, for example, and the questions regarding his military prowess get short shrift. Meanwhile, the play itself exists in a bubble, ignoring other political and social issues hounding the country’s conscience during this tumultuous year.
But All the Way is very much a satisfying play about a man, and Cranston delivers a star performance in the best sense possible. With little physical resemblance between the trim Cranston and his slovenly, overweight onstage alter ego, Schenkkan arms the actor with a series of chicken-fried bon mots to cut through the extensive political morass (prosthetic earlobes help, too), which Cranston delivers with aplomb. Demonstrating both impressive stamina and technique, Cranston evokes a larger-than-life presence; even during the stretches in which Johnson is offstage, his presence lingers, his palpable energy fueling a machine that could have otherwise felt overly mechanical. Since All the Way offers a historical look, not an incisive one, one shouldn’t expect layer-peeling along a Walter White level, but look forward to a hearty meal. Come for the scenery chewing. Stay for the education.
All the Way
Neil Simon Theater, 250 West 52nd Street. http://www.allthewaybroadway.com/. Through June 29.
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