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.

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