NEW YORK — Bryan Cranston for president!
Portraying America’s 36th chief executive, Lyndon Baines Johnson, in Robert Schenkkan’s democratic procedural drama “All the Way,” Cranston proves so effortlessly captivating that you could imagine pulling a lever for him — or even contributing generously to whatever campaign war chest he trots out.
Well, maybe “effortlessly” is the wrong word. Because Cranston, late of TV’s habit-forming “Breaking Bad,” works like the dickens to convey in his cagey, short-fused, eternally prowling LBJ a strength of will that reveals what a political leader needs to get big things done. It’s a darn good thing, too, for without him, the three-hour production, which opened Thursday night at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre, might feel like something a little duller, along the lines of a talking textbook.
An astounding 20 actors parade by in Schenkkan’s legislative pageant — a veritable horde, by contemporary straight-play standards — to reenact the events surrounding the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. “All the Way” suggests that only a pragmatist such as Johnson, attuned to the nation’s political currents and accustomed to cutting deals, could have successfully championed the bill, navigating between recalcitrant Southern Democrats like Georgia Sen. Richard Russell (John McMartin), and impatient activists like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Brandon J. Dirden).
That Johnson indeed got the controversial legislation passed, through a combination of muscle-flexing, compromising, cajoling and pork-providing, stands, of course, as a dramatic lesson for our troubled times. In director Bill Rauch’s civics-class approach — the set resembles the chambers of a deliberative body — one is compelled to reflect on the current paralytic condition of Washington, and some of the skills that Johnson possessed that might have come in handy over the past few years.
The occasion of the opening of “All the Way” provides us not only with an opportunity to take in Johnson’s achievement, but also to appreciate a Broadway play tackling American history with such earnest vitality. It’s hard to imagine the piece having garnered this kind of prominent platform without the participation of someone like Cranston, who, by virtue of his portrayal of the Jekyll-and-Hyde meth kingpin Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” has the clout to bring a rangy play on a weighty subject to widespread public attention.
It just so happens, too, that “All the Way” makes Cranston the towering focal point in a sprawling story. And as with his Walter White, he reveals here a magnetic facility for carrying a monumental tale on his shoulders. The play chronicles the year of Johnson’s presidency that began with his rise from vice president after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, until his election as president in the landslide Democratic victory over Barry Goldwater and the Republicans in November 1964.
How big a factor national sentiment in the wake of Kennedy’s death might have been in the debate over the civil rights bill is not explored deeply in “All the Way”; you’re encouraged here, rather, to marvel at the swiftness and dedication — and glee — with which the often-profane Johnson applied himself to championing the legislation. “Ah’m gonna out-Roosevelt Roosevelt and out-Lincoln Lincoln!” Cranston declares at the outset of the play, in a convincing Texas drawl. If the task required him to mollify conservative elements by jettisoning the voting rights portion of the bill, well, so be it. And if pushing the measure forward meant promising an Arizona senator that he would support his pet water project, that was just another cost of doing federal business.
Watching Cranston’s LBJ dodge and weave — sweet-talking Russell, manipulating his eventual running mate, Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey (Robert Petkoff), bullying poor Lady Bird (Betsy Aidem) — does not get old, even as “All the Way” moves on in Act 2 to what happens after the bill is signed. The downside, however, is that no other character or performance can compete with the play’s central figure. So whenever Cranston goes offstage, our interest in “All the Way” trails off with him.
Perhaps in the vast cavalcade of Washington events and personalities the play covers, there was not much room left for nuanced portraits. In any event, none of the personages filling out the story, from J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean) to George Wallace (Rob Campbell), from Ralph Abernathy (J. Bernard Calloway) to, yes, The Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Aidem, again), come to feel as anything more than the audience for LBJ’s one-man band.
Fortunately for us, though, it’s Cranston who is holding the baton.