|Bryan Cranston Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva|
History Comes to Life and LBJ is Larger Than Life
By Lauren Yarger
Almost three hours about reluctant President Lyndon Baines Johnson breezes by in Robert Schenkkan's play starring a sure-to-be-Tony-nominated Bryan Cranston (TV's "Breaking Bad") in a riveting Broadway debut.
Bill Rauch directs the drama, set just after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and through Johnson's re-election bid. The seats of congress surround the stage (Christopher Acebo, design) and projections behind them (Shawn Sagady, design) change the location of the action. LBJ doesn't want to be president, but he proves himself worthy of the Oval office as he steps up to take on the nation's civil rights battle.
"What's the point of being president if you can't so what's right?" he asks.
He enlists Hubert Humphrey (Robert Petkoff) to help him negotiate with Martin Luther King (Brandon R. Dirden), solicits the support of Washington Post Publisher Katherine Graham (Betsy Aidem, who also plays Lady Bird) and does political battle with a host of contemporary political characters played in multiple roles by a large ensemble cast.
"If you get in my way, I'll crush you," the no-longer second fiddle politician says.
The ensemble includes Eric Lenox Abrams, J. Bernard Calloway, Rob Campbell, Brandon J. Dirden, James Eckhouse, Peter Jay Fernandez, Christopher Gurr, William Jackson Harper, Michael McKean, John McMartin, Christopher Liam Moore, Robert Petkoff, Ethan Phillips, Richard Poe ,Roslyn Ruff, Susannah Schulman, Bill Timoney and Steve Vinovich.
Standing out as the one person LBJ can't manipulate -- and for a solid performance -- is Michael McKean as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Also standing out from the crowd, because of his uncanny resemblance to the real governor, is Rob Campbell as George Wallace. Dirden sounds like King and Aidem, with some hair and wig design by Paul Huntley and costuming by Deborah M. Dryden, looks like the first lady.
It's heavy on the male perspective (as 1960s politics was -- and well, the same could be said of 2014 politics, I suppose). Aidem gives Lady Bird dignity, but we don't fully understand why she's OK with his infidelity. King's wife, Coretta (Ruff), also gets to look wounded over her husband's betrayal, but the women stay behind a facade just like real political wives were expected to do in 1964 -- or 2014.
The 2014 audience, following recent stories of Christian bakery owners told by courts they have to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, react to references in the play about state's being left to decide who gets served at cafe counters. Also getting a laugh is the assurance that the FBI has been integrated because two black agents are allowed to drive the director.
A derogatory remark about women, however, got no reaction from the audience. A joke about men referring to unattractive women with no personalities as "nice" got a roar, however. Some things haven't changed.....
Rauch ads some nice touches that kept me from brooding too long, however. Some staging has separate conversations taking place at the same time on stage with seamless continuity as characters step in and out of them. Phone conversations begin on the phone, then somehow become one-on-one conversations. And in perhaps some of the best direction I've seen in a long time, LBJ and MLK start out as opposites, then gravitate toward each other until they are giving practically the same message.
All the Way is a chance to see history come to life and to witness a memorable performance by Cranston that could go down in the history books itself, if he get a Tony nod.
All the Way plays at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd St., NYC, until June 29. http://allthewaybroadway.com/.
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