An hour before the curtain of “All the Way” at the Neil Simon Theater, two middle-aged women walked past the marquee and saw the oversized photograph of Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Baines Johnson. “Look,” said one. “It’s Mr. White. I didn’t know he was on Broadway.” Referring, of course, to Cranston’s breakout role in “Breaking Bad” as the science teacher turned drug kingpin. And, when the show began, the audience seemed to expect some kind of crystal meth night. Who, alas, is this Lurleen Wallace? Richard Russell? Roy Wilkins? Ralph Abernathy?
“All the Way” sits at the crossroads of history and drama, and, from a script point of view, it’s hard for either to win out. It is sketchy and cartoonish, even in an overlong (nearly three-hour) affair. And as drama, it offers a reasonable arc of tension (what it took, politically, to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act) but the heart of it is hinted at only near the end of the second act, when the lead character reflects on his life and presidency. Maybe the problem is Robert Caro. If you read his brilliant work on Johnson, you know the true depth of all of this.
I can understand the playwright’s conundrum. Robert Schenkkan is trying to show the reality of sausage-making in a relatively short time frame but to do justice to it he must immerse the audience in a world only the gray hairs know something about, and even we need to be reminded, for example, of who became the pivotal figure in persuading fellow Republicans to support the civil rights bill. (Everett Dirksen is usually referred to in mixed company only as the creator of, “A billion here, a billion there — pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”) Even so, Schenkkan’s work is admirable — full of twists and turns and sharp dialogue, more than crass enough to prevent “All the Way” from ever becoming a school play.
As for Cranston himself, the New Yorker reviewer (Hilton Als) did him an injustice. Yes, he plays a buffoonish and overwrought LBJ, slamming down telephone receivers and hurling insults at every opportunity, but still there is some nuance here, and some depth, and Cranston throws himself into this. There is a point in the second act where he is silent, and slumped in his chair, and you’d swear you were looking at LBJ himself.