Shari on the Aisle Rating: **1/2
Director: Bill Rauch
Playwright: Robert Schenkkan
Lead Cast: Bryan Cranston (President Lyndon Baines Johnson), Robert Petkoff (Sen. Hubert Humphrey), John McMartin (Sen. Richard Russell), Michael McKean (J. Edgar Hoover), Brandon J. Dirden (Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.), Rob Campbell (Gov. George Wallace and others), Betsy Aidem (Lady Bird Johnson and others).
In a Nutshell: The time is November, 1963-November, 1964. LBJ, a self-described “accidental president,” is trying to convince Congress to pass the Civil Rights bill while planning his strategy for the upcoming presidential election. Political deals are struck. Threats are made. Tempers flare. Although this is a pivotal time in American history, and the play is a laudable effort to educate those too young to remember the events that took place, obviously we know how things are going to turn out. The bill becomes law (minus the voting rights component) and Johnson wins the 1964 election against Republican Barry Goldwater. Certainly, as evidenced by the film Lincoln, which All the Way parallels in many ways, we know how gripping the back story of passing an important piece of legislation can be. However, although the events depicted in the play—both in the South and in Washington—are quite dramatic and well expressed, at just shy of three hours, All the Way is way too long.
Let’s Talk about Bryan Cranston: Although Cranston is no stranger to the theatre, All the Way marks his Broadway debut. He is of course best known for his performance as Walter White in the hit television series Breaking Bad. Cranston won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series three consecutive times for his work on the show—the first person to do so since Bill Cosby in the 1960s. Here’s the good news: Cranston is a hell of an actor. He is on stage for nearly the entire performance, and he does a terrific job capturing LBJ’s cantankerous brand of Texan bravado. Supposedly, he wears heel lifts to appear taller than he really is, but he’s so thin that when Lady Bird refuses him gravy for his pork chops because he needs to diet, it momentarily breaks the suspension of disbelief.
In Addition: The large cast is made up of many seasoned Broadway veterans, including: Michael McKean (The Best Man, Superior Donuts, Pajama Game, etc.), John McMartin (Into the Woods, High Society, Sweet Charity, Don Juan, etc)., and Brandon J. Dirden (Clybourne Park, Enron, Prelude to a Kiss). Everyone does a fine job. The single set, by Christopher Acebo, is creatively used to form spaces depicting the houses of Congress as well as various meeting venues for civil rights leaders and politicians. Projections designed by Shaw Sagady help shed light on various historical events of the time, heightening their sense of immediacy.
About the Title: Until late in the play the title held no meaning for me. Then, during the heated presidential election, Johnson’s supporters shouted his campaign slogan, “All the Way with LBJ!” Ah-ha!
Trivia: From 1994 to 1997, Bryan Cranston appeared on Seinfeld as Dr. Tim Whatley, Jerry’s dentist. Playwright Robert Schenkkan is also an actor. He portrayed Lieutenant Commander Dexter Remmick in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The Bottom Line: All the Way is an intelligent play with excellent production values that highlights a pivotal time in U.S. history, although it can seem a bit pedantic at times. No doubt many non-theatre goers will buy a ticket to see Walter White in person, and that’s a good thing. However, both the play and Cranston’s fans would be better served if the production team would shave 20-30 minutes off of the play’s run time. Politics is dramatic, but only to a point.
Discount tickets for All the Way are frequently available at TKTS.