Saturday, March 8, 2014

All the Way With LBJ

The new play, All the Way, opened Thursday night at the Neil Simon Theater, West 52nd St., New York and we were lucky enough to get to see it last night, Friday, the second night of what is advertised as a limited run, after about a month of previews. Bryan Cranston, best known now as the chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-dealerWalter White in Breaking Bad on cable.

It's a rousing evening. Cranston delivers a magnificent performance as Lyndon Johnson in Robert Schenkkan's exciting play.  He's backed by a solid cast filled with fine performers who play multiple roles. In one particular, I go along with the mostly excellent review in yesterday's Times: the first act is incredibly strong. It covers Johnson's acceding to the presidency on Kennedy's assassination and then focuses on all his maneuvering to get the bill passed that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Major characters are Senators, from Hubert Humphrey to Strom Thurmond, Congressmen from Howard "Judge" Smith to Katherine St. George of Tuxedo Park, Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins, Stokeley Carmichael, and J. Edgar Hoover. John McMartin, an old Broadway hand,comes in strong as Johnson's friend and wiliest opponent, Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia.

But it is Cranston who pulls the whole thing off. He captures--as of course does Schenkkan's play--all the aspects of LBJ's outsized personality. The man had as many resentments as did Nixon, whom he despised, but in this instance, he channelled those feelings into doing something for people who had been mistreated for decades, if not centuries. Brandon Dirden also puts in a good performance as Dr. King.

Cranston storms, cajoles, and of course demonstrates the famous Johnson treatment when he uses all his skills to attain the goal. You see him play with Hubert Humphrey, who cannot begin to realize what is necessary, even in a more conducive environment than we now have, to make things happen.

It's an exciting show and Cranston keeps up the fervor. He's not on stage all the stage, just most of the time. You almost miss him when he's not. The audience burst into applause after the amazing first act. The second was fine and then the theatre rose to its collective give Cranston and the whole cast a well-deserved standing ovation.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Watching the Oscars

Last night I actually starting asking myself why I always watch the Oscars. The show is tedious and this year's host, Ellen de Generes, who despite being better than some of the others of recent vintage, such as Seth MacFarlane or Hugh Jackman, still emphasized silliness rather than anything the slightest bit sophisticated. Don't get me wrong, I actually usually like her.

Unlike my wife, who manages by hook or crook--lately, she orders up pictures on demand on our home television--to see most of the nominees for Best Picture, I usually see a few of the likely winners. I always get ticked off when one picture tends to grab lots of the lesser awards over pictures that may only have been nominated for one or two and get none. But lately the Academy voters--average age, 62--have been doing that and then voting in another picture entirely for the top prize.

This year I saw American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street.  Both were good--the former was excellent and a lo of fun. It turns out that neither had a prayer of winning any thing much. Why? Who knows?

Maybe it was that Martin Scorsese,who directed the Wolf, finally won sometime in the last few years so they didn't owe him anything. Yes,that's the way the Academy voters appear to think. And American Hustle's best hope was Jennifer Lawrence, put up for Best Supporting Actress and supposedly a favorite did win last year,and that apparently is enough to blow your chances.

Cate Blanchett won Best Actress for Blue Jasmine, which I liked. And apparently she didn't get tarnished by the popular denigration of director Woody Allen,who finally realized two weeks ago that he needed to respond to the attacks made against him by former wife Mia Farrow's progeny.  She was good but I'm not sure she was as electrifying as Amy Adams was in Hustle. In fact--she wasn't.

I didn't see Dallas Buyers Club, so I can't say whether the Best Actor and Supporting Actor awards were good choices. But I did see Gravity, which won for Best Director and a bagful of lesser awards. Once you agree that George Clooney (not nominated) and Sandra Bullock were as charming in this space epic as they always are, you've stated the strong point. It was a short picture that seemed longer. 

I also have not yet seen 12 Years a Slave, which was awarded Best Picture. It had about as much attraction for me as Shoah did some years ago. You have to be in exactly the right mood for that kind of picture. 

The show itself is more insipid than ever. When they chronicled the year's tribute to the late departed, and Sid Caesar's name popped up, I would have given anything to see him walk out as if it were still 1955 and he was in a routine with Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and Howie Morris. And of course I felt bad about seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman on that list. If my dad had still been around these last years, he would have told me we were somehow related to him, as he had told me, fairly confidently, about Dustin.

But I missed any spark of cleverness in the proceedings. Remember when Billy Crystal would have fun with the nominated pictures? And Johnny Carson brought his easy ability to get a laugh out of either a good joke or his amazing talent at recovery from a bad one. To give you an idea of how desperate I am, I would have preferred seeing Bob Hope, who in reality slipped in more jokes making fun of Democrats, just as Jay Leno has been doing for years--both jesters of and for the rich. But Hope was still funny.