If you wait long enough, it’s said, time smooths the warts off big personalities and buffs their highlights. That’s what you see in All the Way, Robert Schenkkan’s redemptive snapshot of Lyndon Baines Johnson, now at the Neil Simon Theatre.Schenkkan writes LBJ as the big, back-slappin’, scratchin’ country boy with a gift for the colorfully profane, the outrageous ego massage, and the bald aggression of a practiced party pol. All the Way celebrates Johnson’s grasp on the levers of power. He threatens to “out-Roosevelt Roosevelt” and “out-Lincoln Lincoln.”
The real LBJ was known to use his 6’4”, maybe-210-pound frame to intimidate and discomfit his victims. Onstage, a more modestly designed Bryan Cranston, at maybe 5’10″ and maybe 170 pounds, completely inhabits the bigness of LBJ. (How do actors DO that?) Cranston captures Johnson’s glee in storytelling that smacks of bourbon and branch in a smoky back room. At the same time, he gives us a Johnson with warts — the most powerful man in the free world, who bruises like a Romanoff.
Cranston’s LBJ has you sitting on the edge, wondering what he’ll say next, what imagined slight will wound, what ancient grudge will be redressed. At the same time, with 19 other actors on stage offering nearly 50 other characters, you mostly hear Cranston. I can’t say it is an ungenerous performance — you like him, and you believe him. In fact, the I’m-the-smartest-wiliest-and-certainly-loudest-sum’bitch-in-the-room take on Johnson may be entirely accurate. But he — at least this LBJ — does suck up all the oxygen.
All the Way takes its title from Lyndon Johnson’s campaign slogan — All the Way With LBJ — but stops well short of all the way. The story is confined to the year between the assassination in Dallas in November ’63 and Johnson’s election in November of ’64.
The sheer scale of history encompassed in that year nearly justifies the indulgent length (2 hours, 50 minutes) of the performance.
As LBJ maneuvers to pass the Civil Rights Act, MLK finds himself maneuvered–caught between the graybeards of the NAACP and the young bloods of SNCC. Stokely’s there and Fannie Lou Hamer and Ralph Abernathy too. If you know the history, this piece is surprisingly satisfying where it could easily have been superficial. If you don’t know the history going in, it’s not a bad précis.
J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean) is played for fun — flabby history perhaps, but good theater. Lady Bird (the solid actor Betsy Aidem) iron-butterflies herself with distinction but isn’t given a single subtle line to deliver. George Wallace ( Rob Campbell) reminds us how shamelessly politicians leveraged blatant racism to advantage. The flexible Mr. Campbell is hateful as Wallace and pragmatically winning as Walter Reuther.
Like about 70 percent of the Wednesday-night audience (an entirely unscientific estimate), I remember Lyndon Johnson. For people of a certain age, “Hey, Hey, LBJ, How Many Kids Did You Kill Today,” chanted in the streets, is a first reference.
But All the Way is all about LBJ before things got to that stage, about the deft politician who passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and — as he well understood — in so doing, lost the then-“solid” South for the Democratic Party.
The staging is stunning. The House of Representatives, the Rose Garden, the president’s bedroom, a nasty motel in the South, a political convention, Air Force One–they all come and go; no confusion, no clutter–it’s just flawlessly done.
The use of projected images in this show is the best I’ve seen. It is used lightly and only with purpose . . . to change venues of course, but also to suggest the evolution of television news and a master politician’s understanding of same.
I recommend it, hands down. Still, as they say in Texas, it is such a long show that, by the end, I did feel I’d “been rode hard, and put away wet.”
All the Way, by Robert Schenkkan, directed by Bill Rauch.
WITH: Bryan Cranston (Lyndon Johnson), Betsy Aidem (Lady Bird Johnson, Katharine Graham, Katharine St.George),Christopher Liam Moore (Walter Jenkins, William Colmer), Susannah Schulman (secretary, Lurleen Wallace, Muriel Humphrey), Robert Petkoff (Hubert Humphrey), John McMartin ( Richard Russell), Michael McKean (J.Edgar Hoover, Robert Byrd), James Eckhouse (Robert McNamara, James Eastland, William Moore McCulloch, Paul B. Johnson, Jr.), Brandon J. Dirden (Martin Luther King), J. Bernard Calloway (Ralph Abernathy, Butler) Ethan Phillips (Stanley Levison, John McCormack, Seymore Trammell, Edwin King), William Jackson Harper (James Harrison, Stokely Carmichael), Richard Poe (Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, Howard “Judge” Smith, Everett Dirksen, Carl Sanders) Roslyn Ruff (Coretta Scott King, Fannie Lou Hamer), Rob Campbell (George Wallace, James Corman, Joseph Alsop, Mike Mansfield, Walter Reuther), Peter Jay Fernandez (Roy Wilkins, Shoeshiner, Aaron Henry), Eric Lenox Abrams (Bob Moses, DavidDennis), Steve Emanuel Celler, White House aide/butler), Christopher Gurr (Strom Thurmond, White House aide/butler), Bill Timoney (Karl Mundt, White House aide/butler).
Scenic Design by Christopher Acebo, Costume Design by Deborah M. Dryden, Lighting Design by Jane Cox, Composing/Sound Design by Paul James Prendergast, Projection Design by Shawn Sagady.At the Neil Simon Theater, 250 West 52nd St., Manhattan. 800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com. Through June 29. Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes