“All the Way” by Robert Schenkkan with Bryan Cranston at the Neil Simon Theatre

One expects light comedy at the Neil Simon Theatre, but sometimes one gets heavy drama. At least that is the case with “All the Way,” Robert Schenkkan’s dramatization of the first year of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, November 1963 through November 1964. Johnson was propelled into the presidency unprepared with the sudden assassination of John F. Kennedy. Bringing his masterful legislative talents to bear, he pushed through several key pieces of the Kennedy legislative agenda that had been languishing in congressional committees, and achieved a landslide election in his own right against Barry Goldwater, less than 12 months after taking office.

Bryan Cranston did an exceptional job of channeling LBJ at the matinee performance I attended on April 19. Although he doesn’t really resemble the late president, he managed to scrunch up his facial features in a way that did evoke Johnson. Similarly, his voice fell short of an outright impression of LBJ, but he managed to inject just enough of the Texas drawl to make it convincing. Leaving that aside, however, this is a fully integrated performance that is consistent throughout and certainly seems to capture the character so vividly described in Robert Caro’s exceptional series of biographical tomes, the most recent of which actually covered the first half of this period.

Robert Schenkkan has provided a sympathetic protrait of a complicated man, an intensely political man who was obsessed with achievement and, haunted by the abbreviated lifespan of his father, eager to accomplish as much as possible from the fear that his time in office would be short. As it was, his time in office was cut short by his miscalculation of the public’s willingness to support his military commitment in South Vietnam rather than his health, as events caused him to remove his name from consideration for the 1968 nomination.

Cranston is surrounded by an excellent supporting case, from among whom I would particularly note Brandon J. Dirden as Martin Luther King and Robert Petkoff as Hubert Humphrey. Betty Aidem was also superb in an unduly short role as Lady Bird Johnson – I could have stood for a lot more from her – and the production itself was economically but effectively staged with a unit set that could be quickly converted through lighting, props and projections to provide numerous different appropriate settings from the Oval Office to the halls of Congress to hotel rooms and political convention podiums. Director Bill Rauch had the cast moving through a complex choreography of entrances, exists, and dramatic interactions. The entire thing is so brilliantly enacted and staged that it seems a lot shorter than it actually was. What could have been a dry history lesson emerges as a vivid portrait of a passionately engaged man who stumbled at times — sometimes with tragic consequences for himself and the nation — but who also left a rich domestic policy legacy that continues to provide the framework for some of our most important laws, especially the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which was his first great legislative achievement as president.

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