Theater Review - All the Way (NY)

“All the Way” , a new, meaty play by Pulitzer Prize winner, Robert Schenkkan (for The Kentucky Cycle), is filling the seats at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway.  It is unusual to see a large cast in a three hour drama.  In recent times, plays tend to be a few cast members, 90 minutes with no intermission, slam, bam and you're home!  But, this playwright has taken an expansive and important subject and tells the story well using over 20 characters. That is why he won the inaugural Edward Kennedy Award for best new play based on history and the (ATCA) American Theatre Critic's Association/Steinberg best new play award—improperly referred to in the Playbill as the National Critics Association.

 

Of course, it does not hurt that he has the actor of the moment, Bryan Cranston, making his Broadway debut as President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Although Cranston has done fine work on stage, film and TV, he is best known for winning the passionate love of fans everywhere and awards for “Breaking Bad.”  I have never seen that TV series, but I do not think Cranston’s performance on stage here can be eclipsed.  At 5' 10''  he is neither as tall as Johnson, who was 6'4,” nor as heavy.  However, he has a large head, and talking in a thick Texan accent, he bellows, whispers, grunts and shouts with great range. Politics is war, he roars, and the tactics of battle are upfront and personal in “All the Way.”

 

We meet the 37th president in 1964 right after he has been sworn in following Kennedy's assassination.  He states his goal that in the 11 months he has before the next election, he is determined to pass a Civil Rights bill, despite the vicious opposition of southern Senators, many of whom are his friends. On a formidable set designed by Christopher Acebo, a structure of dark wood meant to be the U.S. senate, lit seriously by Jane Cox, Bill Ruach directs the mostly male cast costumed by Deborah Dryden and bewigged by Paul Huntley.  The different scenes of Washington D.C., Atlanta and Mississippi, designed and projected effectively by Shawn Sagady and Wendell K. Harington, fill the back wall. 

 

LBJ is seated stage center in a pale aqua chair on a round rug of the same color. There he greets the various characters aided by Walter Jenkins, played with alacrity by Christopher Liam Moore. Although each of the actors are precise in their roles, several are outstanding. Dressed in a cream-colored suit, John McMartin, whose list of credits from straight plays to musicals would fill a playbill, slides comfortably into the part of conservative Democrat Richard Russell, a racist, who served for 40 years in the US Senate, and ran for President. Russell was a mentor to Johnson, but would not consider the Voting Rights part of the bill.  Brandon J. Dirden does not look like Martin Luther King Jr., yet his voice brings the beloved leader back with shivers of realism and nuance. Roslyn Ruff is his wife, Coretta, and a moving Fannie Lou Hamer, who was beaten and raped.  The exploration of the relationship between LBJ and Dr. King is one of the strongest points of the play.

 

Michael McKean's J. Edgar Hoover, who taped King's after hour activities, is on target; and there is a telling moment when after learning of Walter being caught with a man, LBJ asks Hoover,  “How do you know when someone is one of those?” Robert Petkoff resembles Hubert Humphrey, the liberal senator from Minnesota, who became Vice- President and who was constantly abused by LBJ for not acting with certainty. Then, LBJ abused his wife, Lady Bird, a perfect Betsey Aidem.  Among his many parts, Richard Poe' s hair is high enough for Everett Dirksen, but he does not have his remarkably ponderous voice down as yet. I know who all these character were, but I wonder, if those who didn't would enjoy “All the Way” as much as I did?

 

Its sequel, “The Great Society” will premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in July, 2014.

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