‘Breaking Bad” star good, if not quite Broadway-ready, in tale of Lyndon Baines Johnson using Civil Rights to fill JFK's shoes
Bryan Cranston is leaving the meth maker in the dust. By playing Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose outsized personality has reached the level of myth, the actor proves he’s as canny a strategist with his career as Walter White and the Texan were about theirs.
Transitioning out of an epochal TV role can be notoriously tricky. But on the day “Breaking Bad” bowed out, Cranston was already giving himself a persuasive make-over in Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way,” an epic play that’s fittingly all about the wrenching, roiling process of change.
The production itself, running until Oct. 12 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., is built around transformations. In the span of three hours that move with the speed of a careening freight train, 17 actors play 44 parts in approximately 50 scenes seamlessly conducted by director Bill Rauch.
“All the Way” was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, run by Rauch, as part of its jaw-droppingly massive American Revolutions series of 37 plays dedicated to turning-points in U.S. history. Schenkkan, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and Lone Star native, has picked a whopping game-changer: the tumultuous first year of the Johnson administration.
At the start, LBJ is mere moments into fulfilling his doggedly-pursued, life-long dream. He’s president of the United States. But there’s a Sword of Damocles-sized asterisk hanging over his head: He’s assumed the vaunted mantle only by way of tragedy. And there are just 11 months left before the next election.
With an ambition of Shakespearean grandeur and pathos, in its near-perverse degree of difficulty, Schenkkan charts how LBJ sets out to make the country feel they’ve chosen him as their leader. He decides to “out-Roosevelt Roosevelt and out-Lincoln Lincoln” by passing large-scale civil rights legislation.
In bold, punchy strokes, Schenkkan and the cast present the remarkable facts as scrupulously investigated research has revealed. No less than the national character is laid bare as Johnson is beset on all sides by men and a few women of many races, creeds, and regions all fighting to keep or get what history has given or denied them.
Each ensemble member’s estimable gift for sliding into and out of roles with diametrically opposed POV’s shows the exhilarating effect of changing one’s mind, even as each figure portrayed tries to dig his, or her, heels in the slowly shifting sands.
Like a Lone Star Richard III, LBJ brilliantly divines whatever varied approach is needed to get to every one of these recalcitrant people. He uses tales of his Southern cornpone youth, as Richard used his disability, to gull his quarry. Cranston demonstrates an equally impressive skill for getting at Johnson as well.
Here, as in “Breaking Bad,” he marks a unique place among current American actors. Cranston can be as quick-minded and willing to risk alienating audience affection as Kevin Spacey. Yet he’s always emotionally accessible, like Tom Hanks.
He can blend into the scenery at will but has a talent for mimicry as well. And the man seems to have no vanity, whether in sporting Walt’s predeliction for tighty whities or LBJ’s for boxers.
He puts all of the above to use as a persuasively unprejudiced, bullying, insecure, uncompassionate Johnson. What Cranston can’t do is grow.
The five inches Johnson had on the actor, and on most men, allowed him to dominate naturally. When Cranston invades his antagonists’ personal space, thrusting his finger like the 36th president, it comes off as a bulldog’s effort to gain control rather than a hounddog’s God-given instinct to preserve it.
Still, Cranston’s LBJ proves fit to stand beside his already-legendary WW. And the limitations of the current performance fit those of the project, where time and again Schenkkan shows how the great is the enemy of the good. Of course, the message has relevance ripped from today’s headlines.
When Johnson agrees to emend the bill to gain acceptance by key Southerners, he has to convince Martin Luther King Jr. (Brandon J. Durden, getting the cadence right but not the full measure of the man) that compromise is necessary to gain any significant advances against institutionalized racism. Then King has to teach his brethren the same lesson.
And truth be told, the play itself falls short of greatness. Unnecessary subplots take time away from characterizations that could use more shading. Stylistic curlicues, as in having multiple scenes play out in tandem with characters in each saying certain words and phrases in unison, come off as ideas that Tony Kushner might have considered and rejected.
Tonally, laughter comes more to the fore just when Rauch’s production needs to deepen. Late in the game, Cranston makes Johnson’s growing self-pity too easy to mock. And the facile humor of Michael McKean’s J. Edgar Hoover choosing his words carefully about whether to exploit the arrest of Johnson’s favorite aide-de-camp (a memorable Christopher Liam Moore) for indecent homosexual acts is unhelpful.
Cranston and “All the Way” aren’t quite ready to go all the way to Broadway. But they’re part of the way there and that’s all to the good.