Complexity Made Clear and Politics is War in ‘All the Way’ – 5 stars

By Johnny Monsarrat

All the Way, by the American Repertory Theatre, by Robert Schenkkan, September 13 to October 12, 2013, at the American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Directed by Bill Rauch, set design by Christopher Acebo, costume design by Deborah M. Dryden, lighting design by Jane Cox, composition and sound design by Paul James Prendergast, and projections by Shawn Sagady. Featuring Eric Lenox Abrams, Betsy Aidem, Reed Birney, Arnie Burton, Dan Butler, J. Bernard Calloway, Bryan Cranston, Crystal A. Dickinson, Brandon J. Dirden, Peter Jay Fernandez, William Jackson Harper, Dakin Matthews, Michael McKean, Christopher Liam Moore, Ethan Phillips, Richard Poe, and Susannah Schulman.

Is it a war or a love story? In 1963, after Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson becomes President of the United States and must carry forward Kennedy’s civil rights agenda while living under his shadow. Will the public come to love this “accidental president”? Will Johnson pass his civil rights bill and get re-elected? We know the answer to who wins these wars, but who will win the love story between Johnson’s desire to do good and be loved by the public, versus his determination that politics is war and that the ends justify the means?

The prime feature of All the Way is its clarity. Although reviewing the history of the civil rights movement before the show will help you catch more nuances, and the show’s program guide helpfully lights the way, the show is remarkably clear about what is happening, when it is happening, who the stakeholders are, and what their goals are, throughout. The 3-hour production (be warned, standing-room-only ticket buyers!) has more than 100 scenes, packed densely with details and plot twists, and yet even with my limited knowledge of LBJ (being from Massachusetts I had always assumed that Kennedy was the big dog in the civil rights movement) I kept up with the story. This was even though each actor played more than one character. Most transitions in the show took 10 seconds or less, and it was dominated by one-second scene changes where two casts stood on stage simultaneously, one “freeze frame” in darkness, with spotlights switched to the other.

Fans of AMC’s Breaking Bad will know Bryan Cranston (Lyndon Johnson), who is at the top of his career now that the drug dealing television drama is coming to its series conclusion. Cranston has a difficult challenge in All the Way because it is mostly politicians sitting and talking. It’s unbecoming for a politico to get too emotional, and while All the Way does range between celebration and sobbing, minutiae are where it lives. The play heaps complexity onto Johnson’s character to fill this shortened range. He is a loudmouthed Texan with vulgar yet charming stories. He is a self-loathing wreck who “does have feelings” and wants to be loved by the public, but he’ll pick fights that endanger his popularity and re-election. He is a do-gooder who must make social change, and yet sometimes the ends justify the means. He is cruel at times to his wife and aides, yet also a crusader for what is right.

Cranston gives these complexities a fluidity that makes a whole. I have to confess that the first two minutes of my experience in the audience were dominated by the thought, “That’s the Breaking Bad guy!” but then that thought was forgotten and he was simply LBJ from then on. From my seat near the back, Cranston in his makeup and costume looked completely like Johnson, taking on mannerisms that pulled at my subconscious knowledge of LBJ from television. His ability to bark at someone in one moment and then sweet talk someone in the next showcased Johnson’s determination to get things done and his absolute belief that he is doing something good.

Without Bryan Cranston the production would still feature an all-star cast. Fans of Star Trek: Voyager will recognize Ethan Phillips, whose distinctive nasal voice was a challenge to blend with the play’s serious tone, and fans of the This Is Spinal Tap will recognize Michael McKean who plays the sinister J. Edgar Hoover, listening with bugs to Martin Luther King and pushing an anti-Johnson agenda while serving the president. McKean portrays Hoover as unlikeable and paranoid, but quite correctly All the Way does not deviate from its focus on Johnson to show us more. It will help to get one joke to know that Hoover was later rumored to be gay. Among the supporting cast, Reed Birney was my favorite for the pitiful yet resolute Hubert Humphrey, who plays political fix-it man. Birney plays him with sincerity and earnestness, exasperated in his gestures and frantic in his pleading, hoping to cash in on political favors if he can somehow keep up with Johnson’s increasingly impossible demands.

All the Way does not make the mistake of the movie Lincoln, which is mostly about how great white people are rather than giving time to American blacks in their struggle for justice. However, I would love to have seen even more of Martin Luther King and his associates in All the Way, and didn’t quite get all the fine details of the show’s portrayal the African-American viewpoint. Whether that was a failing of the play, or my own being a white bread guy, or my lack of knowledge of the 1960s, I’ll let you decide. Snick and Slick are defined in the program guide, at least. Women play a marginal role in the production.

Thankfully, the complexity of All The Way is contained to people and personalities, not politics. All the Way concentrates (with two exceptions mentioning Vietnam, but no space program, no Soviets) on the civil rights movement, not the entire spectrum of a president’s duties. And by setting a clock, the countdown to the 1964 presidential election, the play is seated concretely in time with a sense of motion and finality at the end. The major strength of the play is how it shows the personal side of broad movements fighting each other through a limited set of individuals.

The rapid fire scene changes required a single staging to be used throughout the play, a Congress-style series of wooden rows and aisles, which is used innovatively as a setting for speeches, a political hall, a hotel room, and the Oval Office, aided by a video projection at the back of the stage. Unfortunately the enormous hall seating took up valuable space on the stage, further limiting the characters, and the power of it clashed with intimate moments set in hotel rooms and small offices. Most scenes left actors who had no role sitting in the stages watching the action, which was sometimes used to great effect — such as Hoover’s FBI listening in to Dr. King, or Dr. King’s group reacting to the stage action they are hearing on the news. However, overall I found it distracting to have a dozen people on stage doing nothing but sitting and staring, outside the spotlights. I suppose they were meant to represent the public watching the drama unfold, like a silent Greek chorus.

One final note: I was delighted at The Glass Menagerie when stars took a moment to greet fans who had lined up in an orderly way. Unfortunately, at the All the Way premiere, there was no receiving line for Bryan Cranston after the show, which made approaching him a bit of a mob scene. He graciously allowed photos to be taken, but when I had questions instead, I felt somewhat dirty wedging in two of them in the bustle of the crowd. (For the record, I asked if he felt that All the Way was a bit of a love story between LBJ and the public and he disagreed but not in a way I feel comfortable quoting, as I’m not sure he understood me.) So I left at the front desk two tiny Walter White and Jesse Pinkman figurines from the LEGO knockoff playset “Superlab” by Citizen Brick and hope they find their way to Mr. Cranston and amuse him.

There are few harder tasks than to digest two years of a president’s life into a human drama, especially in a way entertaining to people who may not be history buffs or hard core theatre goers (although warning, this show is not for children unless your spawn is Genius Bot 3000). Despite a few concerns, given the impact of the acting, the importance of the topics, and the show’s clarity, I gladly give All the Way a perfect 5 stars.

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