All the Way: In brief
Former TV meth overlord Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) gets back to his stage roots in this Washington drama set in the 1960s. Cranston takes on the swaggering role of President Lyndon B. Johnson, fighting to pass his landmark civil rights bill. Bill Rauch directs the Robert Schenkkan piece.
All the Way: Theater review by David Cote
Bryan Cranston recently ended five seasons playing a good man surrounded by depraved criminals, drowning by inches in a cesspool of guilt, paranoia and homicidal rage. In other words, he was training to be President of the United States. As Lyndon B. Johnson, borne into the Oval Office on a wave of blood and hemmed in by enemies within and without his party, Cranston rules the boards with a vengeance, a latter-day Abe Lincoln who drops f-bombs and talks plenty about balls. The TV star’s galvanic turn and the layered, polyphonic production around him take the dried facts of history and make them walk, talk and kick ass to victory.
Writer Robert Schenkkan (The Kentucky Cycle) smartly limits his period docudrama to the first tempestuous year of Johnson’s administration, from his oath-taking after Kennedy’s assassination to winning the 1964 election against rock-ribbed Republican Barry Goldwater. (Schenkkan has already penned a sequel, The Great Society, which premieres in July at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.) The first act of All the Way focuses on Johnson’s heroic (and highly compromised) struggle to get the Civil Rights Act passed. The second shows the messier task of keeping control of the Democratic National Convention as outrage over racist crimes in the South reaches a boiling point.
Although Johnson dominates the action in multiple meetings and phone harangues, the cast of characters includes key players such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Brandon J. Dirden), conservative Georgia Senator Richard Russell (John McMartin) and notorious bugger J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean, clammily smug). The unusually large cast includes vibrant turns by both young and veteran performers such as William Jackson Harper, Robert Petkoff, Betsy Aidem and Richard Poe.
Director Bill Rauch keeps the action flowing through Schenkkan’s lively use of direct address, split scenes, soliloquy and fourth-wall-breaking exhortation. This being a political potboiler, there’s plenty of rousing rhetoric, and Cranston imbues his inspiring speeches and profane rants with a larger-than-life intensity that leaps off the page. Even if the script sometimes lapses into History Channel expositional mode, its humor and passion never lag—and neither does Cranston.
All the Way is the latest in a long line of Beltway exposés that simultaneously glamorize and castigate the legislative or electoral process. Lincoln and The Ides of March in the movies, The West Wing and House of Cards on the small screen—they all teach the same lesson: doing the right thing, if at all possible, is a bloody, cruel business. Even if we know the outcome—Johnson will pass that bill and he will defeat Goldwater—the horse trading and backstabbing keep us transfixed.
While the piece may not ultimately rise to drama on a Shakespearean (or Kushnerian, Hare-ian, take your pick) level, its appearance on Broadway points to producer Jeffrey Richards’s noble belief in plays with ideological or civic heft (he also revived Gore Vidal’s The Best Man in 2012 and 2000). I don’t mind applauding the gesture, and hope for more. If America had a healthy theater culture, idea-rich history plays such as this one would crop up every season. By the same token, if America had a healthy political culture, there would be less bad theater in Washington.—Theater review by David Cote
THE BOTTOM LINE Bryan Cranston seizes power in this muscular Presidential drama, his Broadway debut.
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