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Theater Review: An Arm-Twister in the Oval Office

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September 25, 2013

Theater Review

An Arm-Twister in the Oval Office


The New York Times


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The crowds excitedly filing in to the American Repertory Theater here are not, I am willing to bet, panting at the prospect of hearing words like “filibuster” and “cloture” tossed into their laps. Nor are they eager to watch politicians fulminating and pontificating in front of microphones. For such diversions, after all, we have cable news, and with the government slouching toward yet another partisan smackdown, it’s showtime 24/7.

No, the reason “All the Way,” a new historical drama by Robert Schenkkan (“The Kentucky Cycle”), has sold out its entire run has everything to do with the man who spends much of the evening in an oval-shaped space at center stage. Bryan Cranston, who racked up three Emmys as the chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin in the obsessively adored cable series “Breaking Bad,” stars as President Lyndon Baines Johnson, fighting to assert himself as a figure of authority, both moral and political, in the tumultuous months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

To immediately address the question of Mr. Cranston’s own authority: yes, onstage he cuts a vigorous, imposing figure as L.B.J., employing a drawl as wide as the Rio Grande as the new president backslaps and backstabs his way through the rough waters of a Washington that, in its deep divisions, bears a depressing resemblance to our own.

Mr. Cranston’s Johnson glitters with an almost salacious ruthlessness when he senses a chance to do a little arm-twisting to lock down another vote for a bill he wants passed. And in Mr. Schenkkan’s sharply outlined portrait, Johnson spouts down-home truths, Southern-fried parables and the occasional blue tale like a geyser gushing oil in his native Texas. Mr. Cranston delivers them all with the jovial ease of a man spinning yarns to his buddies on the front porch. (Still, after the umpteenth such serving of corn pone, I began to wonder how Johnson ever found time to do any actual politicking.)

This winning star turn can go only so far, however, to give dramatic thrust to Mr. Schenkkan’s play, which is directed by Bill Rauch, the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where the play had its premiere (without Mr. Cranston) last year. “All the Way” sprawls across three hours of stage time as it covers an imposingly wide swath of territory.

Concentrating on two parallel story lines — Johnson’s fight to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and his maneuvering to secure a full term as president — the play dangles more subplots than a Congressional bill has earmarks: the sordid attempts by J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean) to discredit the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Brandon J. Dirden); the infamous killing of three young men seeking to register black voters in Mississippi; the battle to seat black delegates from Mississippi at the 1964 Democratic National Convention that followed; and even comparatively minor incidents like the arrest of Johnson’s longtime aide-de-camp, Walter Jenkins (Christopher Liam Moore), for having sex in a men’s room.

“All the Way” works just fine as a PowerPoint lesson in political history, but it ultimately accrues minimal dramatic momentum. (The polished wooden set by Christopher Acebo is designed to suggest a Congressional chamber.) For policy wonks with an avid interest in the backroom deal making that doesn’t turn up on C-Span, the play will offer plenty to chew on. And yet for all its admirable attention to the complex currents of the period it covers, the wide focus drains the play of the narrative drive that makes for engrossing theater. (A countdown clock, noting the number of days to the presidential election, cannot really engender much suspense, since most in the audience will know how that contest ended.)

The play begins in the hours immediately after Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 as Johnson is winging toward Washington on Air Force One. He knows he has to hit the tarmac running: the next election is less than a year away, and after three years of being virtually powerless as Kennedy’s vice president, Johnson needs to quickly show that he has the leadership qualities necessary to bring the country through a troubled time.

Kennedy had already sent the civil rights bill to Congress, where its foes were confidently expecting to gut it, as they had another such bill in 1957, when Johnson was the Senate majority leader, or to let it die. Johnson seizes on the bill as a necessary means both to win popular approval — the country was largely in favor of it — and to win over the Kennedy liberals who never believed in Johnson’s bona fides on the issue. Mr. Schenkkan shows him working the phones relentlessly when he’s not working over a stubborn foe in person, the smiling mask of the good ol’ boy slipping frequently to reveal a bared-tooth snarl.

Mr. Rauch has assembled a first-rate supporting cast to fill out the more than 40 roles in the play, with most actors playing two or three parts (sometimes a little confusingly). Among the standouts: Mr. McKean oozing bland, oily menace as Hoover; Reed Birney as a put upon but loyal Hubert H. Humphrey, whom Johnson dispatches to do much of his behind-the-scenes politicking, holding out the promise of a vice-presidential slot; Dakin Matthews as Senator Richard B. Russell Jr., Democrat of Georgia, an ardent segregationist whom Johnson is shown using all his wiles to bring around; and William Jackson Harper as a doggedly determined Stokely Carmichael, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in scenes that depict the internecine warfare among the several black-led groups fighting for civil rights.

Fine though the acting is throughout, the abundance of characters means that few have any time to be explored in much depth. Even Johnson does not have the layers of shading that I had hoped for. You come away from Mr. Schenkkan’s play with admiration for Johnson’s peerless political skills, his ability to bend a recalcitrant Congress to his will by means both subtle and blunt, but with little sense of where he truly stood, morally, on the great issues of the day. (In the traffic jam of the play’s dense plot, the Great Society project gets little more than a couple of muted toots on the horn.) Mr. Schenkkan’s portrait leaves the impression that even when Johnson had ascended to the presidency, his primary interest was securing power for his own sake, a portrait at odds with the more complicated, humane one drawn by Robert A. Caro in his majestic, four-volumes-and-counting biography of Johnson.

Theater rooted in history always faces a fundamental problem. Hew too closely to the complicated crosscurrents of the story and you risk shapelessness; take too many liberties in streamlining the drama and you’re no longer in the realm of fact. With the exception of his comparatively unshaded portrait of Johnson, Mr. Schenkkan comes down firmly on the side of complexity, which may be the honorable path, but not necessarily the more rewarding one for the audience.

All the Way

By Robert Schenkkan; directed by Bill Rauch; sets by Christopher Acebo; costumes by Deborah M. Dryden; lighting by Jane Cox; music and sound by Paul James Prendergast; projections by Shawn Sagady; dramaturge, Tom Bryant; dialect coach, Rebecca Clark Carey; associate director, Emily Sophia Knapp; production stage manager, Matthew Farrell. Presented by American Repertory Theater, Diane Paulus, artistic director. At the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Harvard Square, Cambridge, Mass.; (617) 547-8300; americanrepertorytheater.org. Through Oct. 12. Running time: 3 hours.

WITH: Bryan Cranston (President Lyndon Baines Johnson), Betsy Aidem (Lady Bird Johnson/Katharine Graham/Rep. Katharine S. George), Christopher Liam Moore (Walter Jenkins/Rep. William Colmer), Susannah Schulman (Secretary/Lurleen Wallace/Muriel Humphrey), Reed Birney (Senator Hubert H. Humphrey/Senator Strom Thurmond), Dakin Matthews (Senator Richard B. Russell Jr./Rep. Emanuel Celler/Jim Martin), Michael McKean (J. Edgar Hoover/Senator Robert C. Byrd), Arnie Burton (Robert McNamara/Senator James O. Eastland/Rep. William Moore/Gov. Paul B. Johnson), Brandon J. Dirden (the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.), J. Bernard Calloway (the Rev. Ralph Abernathy), Ethan Phillips (Stanley Levison/Rep. John McCormack/Seymore Trammell/the Rev. Edwin King), William Jackson Harper (James Harrison/Stokely Carmichael), Richard Poe (Cartha DeLoach/Rep. Howard Smith/ Senator Everett M. Dirksen/Gov. Carl Sanders), Crystal A. Dickinson (Coretta Scott King/Fannie Lou Hamer), Dan Butler (Gov. George Wallace/Rep. James Corman/Senator Mike J. Mansfield/Walter Reuther), Peter Jay Fernandez (Roy Wilkins/Shoeshiner/Aaron Henry) and Eric Lenox Abrams (Bob Moses/David Dennis).

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