CAMBRIDGE — Star power? “All the Way” has plenty of it. Bryan Cranston will understand it’s a compliment to say the charisma on display is Lyndon Baines Johnson’s, not his.
Even in politics-obsessed Massachusetts, it’s difficult to imagine that the American Repertory Theater would have sold out the entire run of a three-hour play about Johnson’s presidency without “Breaking Bad” star Cranston in the lead. (Only standing-room tickets remain for performances at the Loeb Drama Center through Oct. 12, and there’s talk of a move to Broadway.)
But at Thursday night’s opening, LBJ ruled the stage. There was no sign of Walter White, the mild-mannered chemistry teacher-turned-meth chemist that Cranston plays on that acclaimed series, now in its final weeks on cable. And faint echoes of Walter’s other personality, the cold-eyed kingpin Heisenberg, were all Johnson. LBJ just made a different kind of deal.
Robert Schenkkan’s play follows Johnson through the first year of his presidency, from his assumption of power after President Kennedy’s assassination through his triumph over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. It focuses on his backroom maneuvering to get a civil rights bill passed, handling Martin Luther King Jr. and the liberals on one side and a bunch of racist southern legislators on the other.
Texas accent aside, Cranston doesn’t try for the unique timbre of Johnson’s voice, and the facial prosthetics he’s reportedly wearing are barely noticeable. The resemblance isn’t seamless. But Cranston delivers Johnson’s outsize presence, his cackling humor and sudden rages, his canny maneuvering and his self-pity. LBJ owns every room he’s in, less by the power of the presidency than the power of personality, fortified by stagecraft such as leaning in spit-close to emphasize a point. Much of the time, Johnson is performing himself.
Johnson’s profanity and crude physicality are trademarks that Cranston seems to enjoy. In fact, the actor may have a little too much energy. He scampers at times, once up and over Johnson’s bed. For those of us with vague childhood memories of Johnson as a dour, imposing, cranky-grandpa type, it can be disconcerting.
Oh, and what about the play? Schenkkan has brought intense craft and discipline to “All the Way,” switching among a dozen or so major characters and many minor ones. He brings us a wide-focus chronology of a key story line sometimes overlooked in the history of the 1960s, one that resonates with today’s Washington gridlock. But his detailed accounting is both a strength and a weakness.
We see all the sweet-talking and strong-arming (Johnson uses more colorful metaphors) that LBJ had to do to get his bill passed, as well as the toxic aftermath of the murders of three Freedom Summer activists. But there are entire scenes, several of them starring race-baiting upstart Governor George Wallace, that could easily be cut to take 20 minutes off the longish show. If we can get through ’64 without seeing Goldwater, we certainly don’t need scenes about Wallace unsuccessfully trying to change parties and join Goldwater’s ticket. It seems like a tangent, research that Schenkkan couldn’t bring himself to discard.
Bill Rauch is artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where the play premiered in 2012 with a different LBJ, and he helmed both productions. Rauch does an admirable job of directing traffic on the large open set, with its benches and large rear-projection screen. Scenes change in an instant, most actors play multiple roles, and it all works seamlessly.
The supporting cast is a mixed bag. Brandon J. Dirden has Martin Luther King Jr.’s cadences but not his presence, perhaps because he’s a spectator in disputes among other civil rights leaders, notably William Jackson Harper as a fiery, young Stokely Carmichael. Christopher Liam Moore gets a heartbreaking moment as a loyal Johnson aide who becomes collateral damage in the larger battle. Betsy Aidem makes a good Lady Bird, but the other parts for women are small. The ever-reliable Dakin Matthews scores as a Georgia senator whose folksy, steely charm almost matches Johnson’s. Reed Birney is a believably abject Hubert Humphrey, but Dan Butler’s Wallace seems like just another southern slickster.
As a true gargoyle of the
Sixties establishment, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Michael McKean seems miscast. He’s tall and smooth and silky, not the way most Americans of the era would remember the portly wiretapper and blackmailer who intimidated even Johnson. A moment near the end of the play, when Johnson subtly needles Hoover about his sexuality, is outright jokey – especially when the two actors milk it for a second laugh. It’s a TV-level bit, the rare instance when we remember that one of the small screen’s stars is front and center on the ART stage.