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Bryan Cranston Delivers The Agony And Ecstasy of LBJ

Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon Johnson. (Evgenia Eliseeva)

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Lyndon Johnson finally got his wish. Forty-five years after he decided to bow out of the 1968 election, after half the country had turned on him, people are standing in unison and cheering him. Deliriously. Deservedly. I hear that some are even considering selling their first-born just to spend three hours in his company.

If it’s not really his company but Bryan Cranston’s, LBJ would have been the first to tell you that it doesn’t much matter how you win people’s hearts, as long as you win their votes.

And let me be one of the first to tell you that Bryan Cranston not only lives up to the hype as LBJ, but “All the Way” is a sensational night of theater. “Bringing history alive” sounds too wimpy a way to describe what goes on at the American Repertory Theater. Grabbing you by the necktie and making you sing “Happy Days Are Here Again,” even if you’re a Republican, is closer to what writer Robert Schenkkan and director Bill Rauch achieve here.

That all of this is happening just as one of the most extraordinary performances in one of the most extraordinary television shows in history is coming to an end only adds to the drama onstage. The “Breaking Bad” connection also accounts for why there are only standing room tickets left for the show between now and the Oct. 12 closing date.

Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon Johnson and Michael McKean as J. Edgar Hoover. (Evgenia Eliseeva)

Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon Johnson and Michael McKean as J. Edgar Hoover. (Evgenia Eliseeva)

“All the Way,” which traces LBJ from the Kennedy assassination to Johnson’s 1964 victory over Barry Goldwater, with the historic Civil Rights Act very much in the middle, is a pretty good indication that the next act for Cranston will be as exciting as the last. (Next up is playing Dalton Trumbo in the film about the blacklisted writer, Cranston’s first cinematic leading role.)

What’s been written about his acting often centers on the range he’s shown between the comedy of “Malcolm in the Middle,” and the intensity of “Breaking Bad.” But when I think of Cranston’s range I think of sitting through “Argo” and wondering who that familiar-looking guy playing Ben Affleck’s boss was and not realizing till the credits that it was Cranston.

He disappears into his roles in a manner that’s more associated with British actors than American. There are hints of Walter White, the meth-cooking protagonist of “Breaking Bad,” here and there in “All the Way,” particularly when Johnson warns people not to cross him. But he’s no one other than LBJ. Despite giving up about half a foot and even more girth, he even looks like LBJ, with furrowed brow, horn-rimmed glasses, slick-backed hair, and myriad other tics.

Cranston doesn’t come as close to sounding like LBJ, but the creative team isn’t after mimicry in “All the Way.” The actors – and it’s an excellent ensemble – seem to be after conveying the characters rather than impersonating them. It can be as simple as a smile and a high-pitched voice for Reed Birney as happy warrior Hubert Humphrey, a look of self-satisfaction by Dan Butler as George Wallace, a bizarre hairdo and stiff body language for Michael McKean’s FBI boss, suggesting all’s not quite right in Hooverville. No one is anything less than convincing.

Much of that credit goes to Rauch and Schenkkan, whose meticulous research and first-rate narrative skills make this such a satisfying marriage of history and drama. The action takes place on an oval stage while characters watch from benches on the sidelines as if they’re eyewitnesses to history. This is a technique well-known to documentary drama, but Schenkkan busts through the limitations of that somewhat stilted form to create something far more fully-formed and far more visceral.

(Evgenia Eliseeva)

Brandon J. Dirden as Martin Luther King Jr. (Evgenia Eliseeva)

When Johnson is dressing down Humphrey for not keeping a tighter rein on Martin Luther King, it feels like a cross between Lear chastising Cordelia and R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant getting in the face of a Marine recruit in “Full Metal Jacket.” Schenkkan’s script is that intelligent and that gut-punching, both of which are matched by Rauch’s direction featuring visually arresting set projections and fast-paced segues. Not to mention all that great body language.

That this was LBJ’s glory year – passing one historic bill after another and winning a landslide victory – barely masks the beehive of LBJ’s brain. He was paranoid, loutish, bullying, self-pitying and manipulative. And those were his good days.

But he was also able to navigate through the competing constituencies of King, Hoover, Southern Democrats, Northern liberals, and moderate Republicans to become such an effective president.

Schenkkan and Cranston pack all of that into the three hours of history as well as foreshadow the Vietnamese doom awaiting Johnson and Humphrey in the sequel, “The Great Society.” That will be taking place at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival next summer with Jack Willis, the original LBJ of “All the Way.”

Whether Cranston goes on to New York with “All the Way” or comes back to Cambridge with “The Great Society,” who knows. The world is his proverbial oyster and his LBJ portrayal will only add to the Cranstonian myth. LBJ is all the evidence one needs that adulation doesn’t last forever, but “All the Way” audiences can bask in the fact that we shared a few hours of his room at the top.

___

More on “All the Way” and Bryan Cranston

Here’s Robert Schenkkan talking about the play when it debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival:

 
Radio Boston interviews Bryan Cranston

Cranston will play Dalton Trumbo

Jimmy Fallon spoofs “Breaking Bad”

Robert Schenkkan on playwrights and history

‘All The Way’ — Did LBJ Break Bad, Too?

Comments

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  • fun bobby

    another article about this play? is this the only play in town?

  • Robert_Morrow

    Lyndon Johnson’s “greatest” accomplishment was murdering John Kennedy.

    If you want to get quickly “up to speed” on the JFK assassination, here is what to read:

    1) LBJ: The Mastermind of the JFK Assassination
    by Phillip Nelson

    2) The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ by Roger
    Stone

    3) JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why
    it Matters by James Douglass

    4) Brothers: the Hidden History of the Kennedy
    Years by David Talbot

    5) The Dark Side of Camelot by
    Seymour Hersh

    6) Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty by
    Russ Baker

    7) Power
    Beyond Reason: The Mental Collapse of Lyndon Johnson by Jablow Hershman

    8) Operation Cyanide: Why the Bombing of the
    USS Liberty Nearly Caused World War III by Peter Hounam (LBJ engineered the
    attack on the USS Liberty)

    9) Inside
    the Assassinations Records Review Board Volume 5,
    by Doug Horne

    10) Watch
    “The Men Who Killed Kennedy – the Guilty Men – episode 9″ at YouTube
    -

    best video
    ever on the JFK assassination; covers well Lyndon Johnson’s role

    11) Google
    the essay “LBJ-CIA Assassination of JFK” by Robert Morrow

    11) Google
    “National Security State and the Assassination of JFK by Andrew Gavin
    Marshall.”

    12) Google
    “Chip Tatum Pegasus.” Intimidation of Ross Perot 1992

    13) Google
    “Vincent Salandria False Mystery Speech.” Read every book & essay Vincent
    Salandria ever wrote.

    14) Google
    “Unanswered Questions as Obama Annoints HW Bush” by Russ Baker

    16) Google
    “Did the Bushes Help to Kill JFK” by Wim Dankbaar

  • Robert_Morrow

    The first family of civil rights is on the public record stating that Lyndon Johnson murdered Dr. Martin Luther King.

    ABC News: “Do you believe that Lyndon Johnson was part of the plot to
    kill your father?

    Dexter King – on national TV in 1997 with the entire MLK family sitting around him: “Yes, I do.”

    ABC NEWS: “What’s more, Dexter King believes the plot went all the way to the White House.” (See Dexter King’s remarks as to who it was he believes was behind his father’s assassination — at 1:03:10).

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=097u5blYeaE

    Son of Dr.King Asserts L.B.J. Role in Plot

    By KEVIN SACK

    Published:
    June 20, 1997

    • Robert_Morrow

      Son of Dr. King Asserts L.B.J. Role in Plot

      By KEVIN SACK

      Published: June 20, 1997

      Web link: http://www.nytimes.com/1997/06/20/us/son-of-dr-king-asserts-lbj-role-in-plot.html

      Three months ago, Dexter Scott King declared that he and
      his family believed that James Earl Ray was not guilty of the murder of his father, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Tonight, in a televised interview, Mr. King asserted that President Lyndon B. Johnson must have been part of a military and governmental conspiracy to kill Dr. King.

      ”Based on the evidence that I’ve been shown, I would think that it would be very difficult for something of that magnitude to occur on his watch and he not be privy to it,” Mr. King said on the ABC News program
      ”Turning Point.”

      Mr. King, who heads the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, suggested that the Army and Federal intelligence agencies were involved in his father’s assassination, in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

      ”I am told that it was part and parcel Army intelligence, C.I.A., F.B.I.,” he said in the interview. ”I think we knew it all along.”

      Mr. King’s older brother, Martin Luther King 3d, said in the television interview that Mr. Ray had ”basically nothing to do with this assassination.”

  • Jonathan Nichols

    Wow, you really had to try hard to compliment the use and design of this set. Characters only watched as “eyewitnesses of history” part of the time. More often they gave the impression that they believed they were backstage only to suddenly realize that they were actually onstage, then get up and retreat backstage without credible explanation. The sidelines were neither fully-formed nor visceral. They were excessive.

    This review seems to have been conjured out of wishful thinking. The over-lengthy “All The Way” tries to incorporate far too many aspects without pulling them all together which leaves each of the many areas covered underdone. The scenes with Lady Bird seemed particularly undeveloped. Not underdeveloped, undeveloped. Why does she even appear?

    Most of the actors appeared to be doing the best that they could with the material they had, but again, the play is so broad in its scope that it comes across as unfocused and lost.

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