Hey, hey, LBJ! How many tickets did you sell today? A Broadway slot for a serious-minded play about Lyndon Baines Johnson’s passage of a civil rights bill wouldn’t typically generate much clamor. But the announcement that Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston would star as our 36th president in Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way set box-office phones buzzing.
Cranston doesn’t much resemble Johnson, though the horn-rimmed glasses help. He stands with his chin squared, his hips thrust forward, and his suit pants hiked nearly to his armpits, adjusting his voice to a reasonable facsimile of Johnson’s good ol’ boy intonations, as when he stretches “bullshit” out to nearly four syllables. It’s not a bad impersonation, and as Cranston’s a virtuoso actor he imbues it with something more — a springy ruthlessness and a genuine pleasure in Johnson’s cornpone realpolitik and profane bluster. That’s a good thing, as the script contains eight mentions of “balls” and one “nutsack.” (Total theater? Try scrotal theater.)
All the Way plays out over a year, from the Kennedy assassination in 1963 to Johnson’s bid for reelection the following November. First, Johnson sets himself the task of passing a civil rights bill. Then he has to keep hold of the presidency in the face of mounting dissatisfaction from white Southerners. Schenkkan has done meticulous and wide-ranging research, perhaps too much. The script twines documentary scenes and speeches with invented ones. The play’s best bits occur early as Johnson does his Metternich-in-a-cowboy-hat routine — promising, coaxing, menacing, finagling. Finally, the bill passes as if by magic. Call it hocus POTUS.
You don’t have to be Robert Caro to know that the election goes to Johnson, too. That lack of suspense shouldn’t trouble the play. We’re pretty sure how Romeo and Juliet or Death of a Salesman will end, but we still feel tension, fear, and sorrow while we watch. But we don’t here. And the reason for that, ironically, is Cranston’s turn. There’s such confidence and brio in his performance that we never doubt Johnson’s eventual success, which robs the drama of its thriller-like aspects.
“There’s no place for ‘nice’ in a knife fight,” LBJ says. While Cranston may not play mean, he plays to win. His turn anticipates the ending, trading tense drama for Whiggish history. Of course, the script itself has its weaknesses independent of Cranston — a tendency to bog down in detail, a habit of glossing over Johnson’s less palatable decisions, a penchant for introducing foils (George Wallace, Martin Luther King) and then abandoning them.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Bill Rauch directs with somewhat stiff pomp and circumstance. The action occurs on a suitably congressional set with unnecessary projection design flickering behind to move us from scene to scene. The supporting players are more or less able, but they’re almost entirely beside the point. This is a one-man show with a supporting cast of 19. You know it from the first speech, when the crowd interrupts to whoop and holler, and from the last, when they applaud his triumphal cry, “Hell, I’m President!” It’s Cranston’s game. The balls are in his court.