Passivity has never really been Bryan Cranston’s style. After five seasons of playing television’s most recognizable meth cook on “Breaking Bad,” he has made his way to Broadway, showing in his debut that he is a force to be reckoned by playing a politician just as much as he was when playing a drug lord. Taking up the role of Lyndon Johnson in the politically charged “All The Way,” Cranston’s star power brings the play’s already well-written script to another level.
Set in the year between the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963 and Johnson’s election the following November 1964, the play centers on Johnson’s key piece of legislation and one of his crowning legacies: the Civil Rights Act.
Robert Schenkkan’s play, the first part in a trilogy, is the heir to the political drama tradition contained in “The West Wing” and “Lincoln,” as it portrays the legislative process on all levels. The stage was surrounded by tiers of desks, shaped like the pit of the House of Representatives. The tiers of desks seated a long list of Johnson’s allies and enemies. The list of characters was so long, in fact, that numerous actors took on two or three roles. Thankfully, the script kept these role changes from being too confusing.
Southern Democrats, among them Sen. Richard Russell (John McMartin), were thrilled to have a southern president for the first time in 100 years, only to become his most bitter enemies in the quest for civil rights and election.
The liberal wing, personified by Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (Robert Petkoff), was unsure of how a democrat from Texas could carry on Kennedy’s progressive legacy.
Above it all, J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean) was keeping tapes of everything, and it was all Johnson could do to control him.
Outside of the Washington, D.C., scene, Dr. Martin Luther King (Brandon J. Dirden) was holding the black community together with both hands while the South burned.
Inside this lion’s pit, managing this cast of thousands, sat Cranston at his desk in the Oval Office, armed with charm, intelligence, and an uncompromising—almost ruthless—desire to win at any cost. The entire play revolved around him, and, as the master of strategy and tactics, he moved all of his pieces expertly to gain both legislative and electoral victory.
Unfortunately, as a partial counterbalance to Cranston, Dirden couldn’t communicate the oratorical strength and passionate leadership for which history has remembered King. He came off as exactly what Johnson saw him as: an annoyance rather than a dominating force in his own right. He seemed broken even before the play began and never recovered. Petkoff too was a disappointment, never able to step from beyond Cranston’s shadow, but simply hanging onto his coattails.
Yet even without the greatest supporting cast, Cranston, who arrived complete with a Texas twang, well-serves Schenkkan’s moment in time—11 months of infighting and political chaos. Not only is the play well-written and well-led, but it is also incredibly timely. Johnson has been one of the liberal exemplars for the past several years, a president to look back upon as a man of action, a leader who put everything on the line for his cause, who wouldn’t back down and would win any way he could. Now, as we analyze today’s political leadership, it is Johnson’s method of accomplishing anything that we have become so nostalgic for.
“All the Way” runs through June 26 at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd St. Tickets start at $52.