I am a political junkie. I majored in Political Science, have worked in local and national campaigns, and my favorite board game growing up dealt with the Electoral College (Really!). So, I was looking forward, with great anticipation, to the new Broadway play, All the Way, that chronicles President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s first 11 months in office after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Happily, the show more then satisfied my addiction. With a tour de force performance by Bryan Cranston as the 36th President, a host of historic and illustrious characters, and enough backroom wheeling and dealing to make your head spin, All the Way is an entertaining and dramatic piece of theater.
The production begins as the newly elevated Vice President, having just arrived in D.C. aboard Air Force One from Dallas, sets out an ambitious legislative agenda, which is centered around the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. Sound dry? Stodgy? Tedious? Not at all, primarily because Bryan Cranston is so forceful and committed in his role. Johnson was a master technician when it came to political action and the passage of legislation. His take-no-prisoner philosophy worked flawlessly until the controversy and protests over the Vietnam War toppled him. Cranston utilizes Johnson’s deceptively folksy charm and strong-arm tactics to give a masterful performance. He truly embodies the man.
A cavalcade of political leaders of the day are cajoled, bullied, and coerced to aid the president in passing what would become one of his signature pieces of legislation. These include his Vice President, the liberal Hubert Humphrey (Robert Petkoff); and his political mentor, Democratic Senator Richard Russell (John McMartin). Other notables in the play are F.B.I. Director, J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean); Governor George Wallace (Rob Campbell); and Roy Wilkins (Peter Jay Fernandez), NAACP Executive Director. Interwoven into the storyline is the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (Brandon J. Dirden) and his close group of advisors and allies and their uneasy alliance with Johnson. Even with their dueling recriminations, denunciations, and criticisms both men realize enactment of the civil rights bill is paramount, for them individually and for the nation.
The supporting cast, seasoned and suitably gratifying, with actors playing multiple roles, truly do support the outstanding performance of Cranston.
Robert Schenkkan’s script is dense and full of historical references and personalities. He turns what could be a lifeless and stuffy exercise in high school civics into intelligent and lively theater. The audience also comes away with a good grasp on how backroom politics and compromises were engineered during the Johnson administration. Maybe today’s Republican and Democratic Washington D.C. legislators should be required to attend a performance to learn a thing or two.
Christopher Acebo’s set design is in the form of semi-circular judicial benches where performers sit, overlooking the action center stage, watching and judging silently. This silent Greek chorus is simple, yet effective. Their reflections and voiceless deliberations echo our thoughts and circumspections.
Director Bill Rauch is able to create a dramatic tension that reverberates throughout the theater. He skillfully manages the entrances and exits of the large cast without losing the pacing necessary to keep the audience’s attention. His ace in the hole is Bryan Cranston. Even when a slight lull may occur, when the actor enters the stage the energy level increases tenfold.
All the Way, grand theater, even for the politically apathetic, at the Neil Simon Theatre through June 29th.