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New York City Theater

"All the Way"
Neil Simon Theater

“This isn’t about salvation,” says President Lyndon Baines Johnson in playwright Robert Schenkkan’s riveting “All the Way.” Rather, he continues, “This is about politics.”

\Just so since “All the Way” isn’t about exploring depth of character or the ironies of pretending to care for the populace while really caring about one’s self. The result may not make for brilliant playwriting , but it does make for an electrifying theatrical experience.

As limned by Bryan (“”Breaking Bad”) Cranston as the prez and a huge supporting cast, what could have been a history lesson becomes a lesson in the art of persuasion. “Ahm just an accidental president,” says Johnson, right after the assassination of Kennedy that thrust Johnson into the Oval Office. “The country needs continuity.”

Which is why this vulgar, countrified southerner pushed for the civil rights bill over the bodies of powerful men like George Wallace and fellow southerners. If he had to excise the voting rights section, so be it. That would wait for a more propitious climate.

On the journey, we’re treated to arm-twisting, backslapping, flattery, seductions, promises and other hard-nosed tactics. “If you get in my way,” says Johnson, “I will crush you.”

The evening’s characters are a who’s who of the times: Martin Luther King,Jr., the flawed moralist; J. Edgar Hoover, the smarmy peeping Tom; Lady Bird, the concerned wife; Walter Jenkins, the loyal aide brought down by entrapment; plus Robert McNamara, Strom Thurmond, Roy Wilkins, Hubert Humphrey, etc., etc. All have their moments, with John McMartin a standout as the conflicted Georgia Sen. Richard Russell.

Act One deals with getting bills passed; Act Two with the run-up to LBJ’s election. Through it all, we have Cranston, hunched shoulders, sneering one moment, charming the next. He’s a man who, while bemoaning his feeling of not being loved, of growing up with a cold father who was himself humiliated, plunges ahead in the face of race riots, scandal and phony news about the Vietnam War.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with the exception of the usually reliable Michael McKean as Hoover, a bland characterization of this hypocritical man. Let’s blame the director Bill Rauch for not exposing Hoover’s sooty soul.

Elsewhere, Rauch does a masterful job corralling so much material and so many actors who flow in and out like intersecting streams. Chief among them, of course, is Cranston in an overwhelming performance, at once scary and empathetic, funny and ferocious. From his physical stance to his bluster to his moments of pain, Cranston is a dynamo.

At the end, audiences can’t help thinking of what’s happening now, with a president whose heart is in the right place, who yearns for justice and equality but who lacks the belly fire that ignited Johnson. If character is destiny, then LBJ’s torpedoes-be-damned approach may not have endeared him to the public, but it sure as hell got things done.

--David A. Rosenberg
March 23, 2014

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