CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Lyndon Johnson finally got his wish. Forty-five years after he decided to bow out of the 1968 election, after half the country had turned on him, people are standing in unison and cheering him. Deliriously. Deservedly. I hear that some are even considering selling their first-born just to spend three hours in his company.
If it’s not really his company but Bryan Cranston’s, LBJ would have been the first to tell you that it doesn’t much matter how you win people’s hearts, as long as you win their votes.
And let me be one of the first to tell you that Bryan Cranston not only lives up to the hype as LBJ, but “All the Way” is a sensational night of theater. “Bringing history alive” sounds too wimpy a way to describe what goes on at the American Repertory Theater. Grabbing you by the necktie and making you sing “Happy Days Are Here Again,” even if you’re a Republican, is closer to what writer Robert Schenkkan and director Bill Rauch achieve here.
That all of this is happening just as one of the most extraordinary performances in one of the most extraordinary television shows in history is coming to an end only adds to the drama onstage. The "Breaking Bad" connection also accounts for why there are only standing room tickets left for the show between now and the Oct. 12 closing date.
“All the Way,” which traces LBJ from the Kennedy assassination to Johnson’s 1964 victory over Barry Goldwater, with the historic Civil Rights Act very much in the middle, is a pretty good indication that the next act for Cranston will be as exciting as the last. (Next up is playing Dalton Trumbo in the film about the blacklisted writer, Cranston's first cinematic leading role.)What’s been written about his acting often centers on the range he’s shown between the comedy of “Malcolm in the Middle,” and the intensity of “Breaking Bad.” But when I think of Cranston’s range I think of sitting through “Argo” and wondering who that familiar-looking guy playing Ben Affleck’s boss was and not realizing till the credits that it was Cranston.
He disappears into his roles in a manner that’s more associated with British actors than American. There are hints of Walter White, the meth-cooking protagonist of “Breaking Bad,” here and there in “All the Way,” particularly when Johnson warns people not to cross him. But he’s no one other than LBJ. Despite giving up about half a foot and even more girth, he even looks like LBJ, with furrowed brow, horn-rimmed glasses, slick-backed hair, and myriad other tics.
Cranston doesn’t come as close to sounding like LBJ, but the creative team isn’t after mimicry in “All the Way.” The actors – and it’s an excellent ensemble – seem to be after conveying the characters rather than impersonating them. It can be as simple as a smile and a high-pitched voice for Reed Birney as happy warrior Hubert Humphrey, a look of self-satisfaction by Dan Butler as George Wallace, a bizarre hairdo and stiff body language for Michael McKean’s FBI boss, suggesting all’s not quite right in Hooverville. No one is anything less than convincing.
Much of that credit goes to Rauch and Schenkkan, whose meticulous research and first-rate narrative skills make this such a satisfying marriage of history and drama. The action takes place on an oval stage while characters watch from benches on the sidelines as if they’re eyewitnesses to history. This is a technique well-known to documentary drama, but Schenkkan busts through the limitations of that somewhat stilted form to create something far more fully-formed and far more visceral.
When Johnson is dressing down Humphrey for not keeping a tighter rein on Martin Luther King, it feels like a cross between Lear chastising Cordelia and R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant getting in the face of a Marine recruit in “Full Metal Jacket.” Schenkkan’s script is that intelligent and that gut-punching, both of which are matched by Rauch’s direction featuring visually arresting set projections and fast-paced segues. Not to mention all that great body language.
That this was LBJ’s glory year – passing one historic bill after another and winning a landslide victory – barely masks the beehive of LBJ’s brain. He was paranoid, loutish, bullying, self-pitying and manipulative. And those were his good days.
But he was also able to navigate through the competing constituencies of King, Hoover, Southern Democrats, Northern liberals, and moderate Republicans to become such an effective president.
Schenkkan and Cranston pack all of that into the three hours of history as well as foreshadow the Vietnamese doom awaiting Johnson and Humphrey in the sequel, “The Great Society.” That will be taking place at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival next summer with Jack Willis, the original LBJ of “All the Way.”
Whether Cranston goes on to New York with “All the Way” or comes back to Cambridge with “The Great Society,” who knows. The world is his proverbial oyster and his LBJ portrayal will only add to the Cranstonian myth. LBJ is all the evidence one needs that adulation doesn’t last forever, but “All the Way” audiences can bask in the fact that we shared a few hours of his room at the top.
More on "All the Way" and Bryan Cranston
Here's Robert Schenkkan talking about the play when it debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival:
This program aired on September 20, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.