It was William Shakespeare who first pointed out that politics makes for strange bedfellows. And in his relentless quest to be formally elected as president of the United States in November 1964, a year after assuming the office due to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson (who could easily have been a Shakespearean character himself) shared the metaphorical sheets with an unusually diverse array of partners.
A man who would have preferred to march to his own drummer, Johnson nonetheless had to wheel and deal with everyone from the world’s foremost African American civil rights leader to the slimy director of the FBI, a host of revered (if morally backwards) Southern senators and congressmen, and an ambitious liberal senator from Minnesota who was all too willing to play the patsy if it meant becoming vice president.
All of these characters, and dozens more, come strikingly to life in Robert Schenkkan’s mesmerizing three-hour drama All the Way, now at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre. Yet unsurprisingly, none of these men (and a few key women) comes as close to commanding our attention as the alternately charming, devious and strong-willed LBJ. It’s not just the power of Schenkkan’s writing that makes this larger-than-life man so fascinating, but that he’s portrayed with extraordinary verisimilitude and unflagging energy by Emmy Award winner Bryan Cranston.
Rather than giving us a look at LBJ’s whole life, Schenkkan wisely narrows his focus here to the 11-month period in which LBJ uses his considerable powers of persuasion to gain election to the nation’s highest office. While he seemingly has little competition from Republican nominee Barry Goldwater or one-time rival Alabama Governor George Wallace (a spookily effective Rob Campbell), Johnson ends up having the fight of his life on his hands. That we know the outcome hardly dims our interest in the journey.
Johnson’s commitment to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (the superb Brandon J. Dirden in his own award-worthy turn) to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 angers his closest allies, the Southern Dixiecrats, headed by LBJ’s longtime mentor “Uncle Dick” Russell (a buttery smooth John McMartin).
And even after he accomplishes that seemingly impossible task, the murder of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi spurs King and his supporters to demand that the integrated Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party get seating – and full voting rights – at the 1964 Presidential Convention, causing more last-minute unrest that threatens to derail Johnson’s aspirations. (The Vietnam War is barely a shadow here, though Schenkkan throws in a reference here and there, as if he’s foreshadowing a sequel to his own work.)
Director Bill Rauch, who helmed the show’s premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, manages to pace these complex proceedings both swiftly and clearly. He has the cast of 20 almost imperceptibly move in and out of Christopher Acebo’s circular wooden set (which resembles both a courtroom and the House of Representatives) and makes excellent use of Shawn Sagady’s projections to convey the play’s many actual settings.
In Rauch’s most innovative use of casting against type, the usually likeable comic actor Michael McKean begs for no sympathy as FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, whose vendetta against King leads to a stunning moment towards the show’s end. But there’s equally fine work by the entire ensemble, most notably Robert Petkoff as Hubert Humphrey, J. Bernard Calloway as Ralph Abernathy, William Jackson Harper as Stokely Carmichael, Betsy Aidem as Lady Bird Johnson, and the always estimable Roslyn Ruff, who makes the most out of two divergent roles, Coretta Scott King and MDFP member Fannie Lou Hamer.
Still, the show belongs to Cranston, whose LBJ is sometimes nearly as terrifying as his Breaking Bad alter ego Walter White. Yet, Cranston and Schenkkan make sure we also see Johnson’s weaknesses, his occasional tenderness to others (a late-in-the-play moment with his longtime aide Walter Jenkins, well played by Christopher Liam Moore, still haunts me) and his insecurity, no matter how well disguised it often was.
In the end, Cranston earns every bit of the prolonged applause for this unforgettable Broadway debut. And there’s very likely a Tony Award in his future. But no matter who takes home that coveted statuette, one can hope that All the Way is not Bryan Cranston’s last time on the Great White Way.