By: David Sheward
The last time Robert Schenkkan had a play on Broadway, it was 20 years ago and covered two centuries of histor
y. The Kentucky Cycle won the Tony, Pulitzer and just about every other major award, but similar, large-cast efforts are extremely rare for the Main Stem-that is unless they’re musicals. Now, Schenkkan is back, painting on a canvas almost as broad with an ambitious history lesson about the first year in office of President Lyndon Johnson. Kentucky was a critical, but not a commercial hit, but All the Way may land in the black, thanks largely to a dynamic Broadway debut from Bryan Cranston in the lead.
Fresh from his multiseason run on Breaking Bad, Cranston transforms himself into the arm-twisting, profanity-spouting chief executive who managed to ram a civil rights bill through a reluctant Congress and win re-election despite challenges from racist elements in his own party and the reactionary Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater. Thrusting his abdomen forward and twisting his features into an almost perpetual scowl, Cranston conveys Johnson’s relentless domination over allies and enemies alike. But he’s not all push and prod: The actor clearly relishes Johnson’s love of a good dirty story. Like a foul-mouthed Abe Lincoln, Cranston’s president dispenses outrageous, illustrative anecdotes with maximum effect, garnering audience guffaws and landing his point with precision.
Though Johnson is the engine of the play, this is not a solo effort. In addition to the ugly behind-the-scenes legislative machinations, Schenkkan gives us detailed tours of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its offshoots; J. Edgar Hoover’s shadowy FBI; and both sides of the aisle in both houses of Congress. It may seem like Schenkkan has taken on too much material to fit into a single evening (The Kentucky Cycle ran six hours over two nights), but the thread is never lost and our attention never wavers.
Bill Rauch, artistic director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival where the play premiered, deftly manipulates a cast of 20 around Christopher Acebo’s courtroom-like set. Shawn Sagady’s projections and Jane Cox’s lighting immeasurably aid in creating the numerous settings-from inside the White House to a crowded convention hotel room in Atlantic City to a lonely field where three civil rights workers were brutally murdered.
In addition to Cranston’s volcanic Johnson, the most memorable impressions are created by Brandon J. Dirden’s sonorous Martin Luther King, Betsy Aidem’s long-suffering first lady, John McMartin’s genteel but stubborn Southern senator, William Jackson Harper’s passionate Stokely Carmichael, and Eric Lenox Abrams’s fiery protestor.
Schenkkan is developing The Great Society, a sequel covering the early years of Johnson’s administration and the deepening Vietnam War, and scheduled for production at OSF this summer. If it’s anything like this robust, fascinating look at our recent politics, I can hardly wait to see it.
Opened March 6 for an open run. Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 50 minutes, including intermission. $52-142. (800) 745-3000.
Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva
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