There’s scenery chewing and then there’s scenery chewing.
We can recall performances in which a charismatic actor didn’t inhabit a role so much as abuse it. Think of Al Pacino in “Scarface.” Pacino’s evocation of a Cuban-Amerian gangster is so broad and so full of emotional extremes that it’s vastly entertaining, but more as a circus act than a work of art.
But other performances are larger than life because they have to be. Think of Laurence Olivier as Richard III or Henry V. Or James Earl Jones in “The Great White Hope.” Plenty of scenery chewing to be observed, but all in service to a higher purpose.
Which brings us to Bryan Cranston, making his Broadway debut in the Tony-nominated epic political drama “All the Way,” a three-hour depiction of the first year of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency. LBJ himself was a man of extremes — loyal but duplicitous, kind but cruel, simple but complex, bullying but fearful — and Cranston hits all the highs, lows and in-betweens without ever sacrificing credibility, even for a moment. This is a remarkable performance by any measure — finely observed, acutely executed and textured by choices that always serve Robert Schenkkan’s play. No wonder it earned Cranston a Tony nomination.
Johnson was and remains fascinating, but in terms of personality he lacked any of the culture, panache and rhetorical skill of his predecessor, John F. Kennedy. He was in many respects an archetypal powerful Texan — crude, gruff, profane, intuitive and sometimes surprisingly eloquent. He was merciless to his enemies and often cruel to his friends. He was an idealist willing to do what he had to do, no matter how unethical, to achieve lofty legislative goals. His legacy included towering achievements, tawdry scandals and at least one stolen election.
As written by Schenkkan and played by Cranston, LBJ fights to maintain the continuity and ideals of JFK’s administration and finds himself horse-trading with African-American activists pushing for sweeping civil rights legislation — and Southern Democrats who want nothing of the sort. He wants to construct his “War on Poverty” through federal programs while Vietnam, still not quite on the radar for most Americans, is a growing problem that shows little evidence of the quagmire it will become.
The looming 1964 presidential election gives the play its dramatic tension. As the countdown to Election Day accelerates and his poll numbers drop in the South, Johnson becomes increasingly short-tempered, megalomaniacal and paranoid.
At times Schenkkan’s play acquires the familiar feel of other docudramas — lots of facts and figures are thrown at the audience — but at the same time it’s not quite like anything we’ve seen. That’s because Schenkkan isn’t like a lot of contemporary playwrights. His preoccupations don’t seem to include questions of identity, validating emotions or finding the meaning of life in the suburbs. He looks at American history and sees sweeping themes worthy of Shakespeare.
Christopher Acebo’s set focuses our attention at center stage, where we usually find Johnson, sometimes working at his desk, yelling at people on the phone or reflecting quietly in a pool of light. Surrounding him on three sides are risers of darkened wood that sometimes serve as senate chambers but also function in a less literal way as characters, almost at random, take seats to watch the ongoing drama of Johnson’s personal and political trials.
This production, directed by Bill Rauch, employs 24 actors — an unheard of number for a non-musical. Indeed, without Cranston’s star power, we might not have seen his play on Broadway, at least not right away. Most of the supporting players perform multiple roles.
Chief among the memorable standouts is John McMartin as Sen. Richard Russell, a Georgia Democrat and mentor to Johnson when he was a senate freshman. McMartin is compelling as an old-school segregationist who comes to accept that the times are, indeed, changing, and that profound political differences don’t really affect his friendship with the president.
Michael McKean’s take on J. Edgar Hoover as a taciturn snoop and political blackmailer is a model of economy and dry humor. Brandon J. Dirden gives us a human-scale version of Martin Luther King, depicted as a pragmatist who must balance idealistic goals against the reality of politics. Rob Campbell’s performance as George Wallace, the Alabama governor and political spoiler who manages to keep Johnson’s name off the presidential ballots in his state, makes a vivid impression.
The narrative covers so much ground that at times viewers may feel overwhelmed by arcana so dense that footnotes would have been a nice addition to the printed program. At the same time, the show seems to move so quickly that historical moments we’d like to learn more about flash before our eyes.
But Schenkkan, the man who gave us the epic-length “The Kentucky Cycle,” isn’t done. This play is the first of two. The second, “The Great Society,” will have its world premiere this summer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and will most likely end up on Broadway.
At its best, “All the Way” shows us the often grim, sometimes comical sausage-making that goes into governing through compromise. Johnson, a master of arm-twisting, was remarkable in his ability to bend people to his will. When charm didn’t work and appeals to conscience fell on deaf ears, Johnson could always threaten to cut off farm subsidies to a Southern state or to promise California water to Nevada.
Ultimately there’s something undeniably poignant about this story of a man who came from dirt-poor Texas roots to become the most powerful politician in the world. As the play makes clear, and as we see in Cranston’s weathered face in the final moments, that journey came at a steep cost.
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to email@example.com.
Our intrepid theater critic, Robert Trussell, reviewed several of the Tony nominees last week in New York. See his review of “The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” which received 10 Tony nominations, on D3. Look for his reviews of “Act One,” “Violet” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” later this week in FYI, on Sunday in A+E and on KansasCity.com. The Tony Awards are Sunday, June 8, and will air live on CBS.