Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Bryan Cranston in ALL THE WAY

     When I looked at my ticket for all the way, I noticed that Bryan Cranston's name was in type over twice as large as that used for the title of the play. In the program, the name of the playwright, Robert Schenkkan, is printed in type less than half the size of that used for Cranston's name. A lover of drama would say that the playwright is a heck of a lot more important than the actor playing the leading role, but Broadway is now and has always been about show business. ALL THE WAY got to Broadway and is filling a 1300 seat theatre because of Bryan Cranston and the popularity he gained from his tv show BREAKING BAD. I must admit I have never seen BREAKING BAD and only know Cranston from his years playing the father on MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE. I went to ALL THE WAY because I am fascinated with Lyndon Johnson's presidency, the last gasp of New Deal politics.
     ALL THE WAY is an old-fashioned, large scale historical drama, the sort of play that was often found on Broadway in the Good Old Days -- over twenty actors in a dramatic chronicle of the year between John F. Kennedy's assassination and Johnson's election to the presidency. The focus in a relatively unfocused play, is Johnson's campaign for a civil rights bill and the subsequent loss of the South for the Democrats. This was a momentous change for the Democratic Party and for the country. Racism gave the South to the Republicans who continue to be the party of white straight male privilege.
Vietnam is barely mentioned, but that is the focus of the sequel to this play. At the center, of course, is Lyndon Johnson, a complex character who becomes less sympathetic as the three-hour play progresses. He's a total political animal who lives to wheedle, cajole and bully opponents into submission. He is also self-indulgent, self-pitying and a bit paranoid, sort of a more charming precursor to the more monstrous Richard Nixon.
     There are two major weaknesses in Schenkaan's play.
      First, there are too many discussions without much dramatic focus or momentum. ALL THE WAY is like a weak doctoral dissertation by a graduate student who just had to thrown in every piece of information he collected in his research. This is a play, not a history book -- we have Robert Caro's brilliant books on LBJ for that -- but Schenkaan has to give us repeated conversations between Martin Luther King and his cohort, Johnson and the congressman and senators he is pushing toward his bill, Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover, and Johnson and his devoted aide, Walter Jenkins. There isn't a lot of forward momentum or of dramatic focus. Schenkaan wants us to see how the events of 1964 have had lasting consequences, but more selection would have helped.
     Second, the play depicts the last era of congressional eloquence -- the last moment when congressmen had to be great orators. Who of us who were sentient back then can forget figures like Everett Dirksen or Robert Byrd? We may not agree at all with the politics of these men, but they were voices. Even Johnson had a unique folksy eloquence. ALL THE WAY does capture Johnson's style, but in general the play is anything but eloquent. It's prosaic. Great playwrights like Shakespeare and Schiller found poetry in history. Schenkaan's play is the dramatic equivalent of journalism. The language is flat and, other than Johnson and occasionally King, the characters all sound the same. This may work on television -- all Aaron Sorkin's characters sound the same -- but plays are about language. They depend on eloquence, rhetoric. ALL THE WAY is flat.
     Yes, Bryan Cranston does capture a version of Johnson, warts and all. It is a performance worth seeing. He's not as tall as LBJ, but he stoops over as if he was literally larger than anyone else around him. Bill Rauch has staged the play effectively on a simple unit set. The other actors are pretty faceless, but that's the play's fault more than the actors'.
     It's great to have something as big as ALL THE WAY on Broadway. I wish it had been better written.
ALL THE WAY. Neil Simon Theatre. May 20, 2014.  

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