“Half the people here are probably here because of Breaking Bad,” the woman next to me said, as the Neil Simon Theatre filled in and we waited for the start of a matinee showing of All the Way, written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and directed by a man whose productions, last season, won both inaugural Edward H. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History awards. I actually thought my seatmate might be lowballing it. Bryan Cranston, the star of the play, has been a fairly unavoidable presence in New York lately—one must resist the urge to liken his descent on the city to the monster who will be his co-star soon enough—and it probably does mean something that before coming to the theater it took me a while, even armed with Google, to figure out who the writer and director of All the Way even were (Robert Schenkkan and Bill Rauch, respectively). In any event, the performance drew a packed house on a Wednesday afternoon, and All the Way merits attention for many reasons other than that it happens to be the next stop in a career we’ve all grown interested in following.
But for that reason too—and truth be told, that’s why I was at the Neil Simon Theatre, chatting with a woman who was more interested in All the Way’s subject, Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose biography she knew well, mainly, it seemed, through the multi-volume biography that Robert Caro has been working on for years now. In the minutes leading up to the show, and again during intermission, the woman schooled me on some of the finer points of Johnson’s career. When it ended she disappeared without saying goodbye (though I do not think this was a criticism—either of me or of the play).
Like Tony Kushner’s synecdochic treatment of Abraham Lincoln (and Schenkkan’s Johnson is perhaps the perfect companion to Lincoln) All the Way limits itself to the initial 11 months of Johnson’s presidency, in two acts: in the first, we follow the pursuit of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; in the second, we track Johnson’s campaign for a full term of his own, the drama hinging on whether civil rights activists would be seated and have the right to cast votes at the 1964 Democratic National Convention—in other words, on whether the Civil Rights Act of just a few months before actually meant anything at all.
Bizarre as it seems, going to see All the Way on the suspicion that you might stumble on something from Breaking Bad actually pans out. Like Walter White, Cranston’s stage Johnson has benign, even visionary goals, but to realize them he must crawl down into the muck. White’s rise to power is quicker than Johnson’s, though even Johnson remains a mysterious figure to those close to him. Like White, Johnson enjoys striving for power and long before the play opens he has made the happy discovery that he is good at manipulation (and it’s not much of a stretch to liken the White-Pinkman relationship to the portrait we get here of Johnson and Hubert Humphrey). Lastly, Johnson, like White, manages to achieve only part of his vision, and at a cost—All the Way demonstrates in terms only slightly less stark than Breaking Bad that the price of progress is blood.
The action of the play is largely telephonic—Johnson on rapid-fire phone calls with all the era’s players: J. Edgar Hoover, Robert McNamara, Katharine Graham, George Wallace, etc. The most gripping scenes are likely those of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Brandon J. Dirden) and his compatriots as they debate how to ride a bucking bronco of a president whom they can only hope is truly on their side. As King and his allies struggle to reconcile themselves to the elimination of the voting rights provision of the Civil Rights Act—it’s the only way to ensure the bill’s passage—we see them wrestle with Schenkkan’s three central themes: vision, politics, and power. Their emotional turmoil as the first of these must be clipped in light of the realities of the other two contrasts with the coolness of Johnson himself, who executes the balancing act like a shrewd Tom Sawyer tricking his friends into doing his work for him and managing a profit in the bargain.
Or that’s not quite right, as one of the goals of All the Way is to reveal Johnson’s humanity and anxiety to us to the same extent that he remained opaque to others in his lifetime. The play begins in a fever dream that Johnson has in an airplane seat shortly after his in-flight inauguration, and not far from the end we see him stripped to his skivvies in a moment that, for many, will appear to cite the pilot of Breaking Bad. Cranston’s Johnson is somewhere between a lewd Pan figure and a monstrous hunchback. Performances of presidents always run the risk of seeming like caricatures—perhaps because for most of us our sense of presidents as people is based on actual caricatures—and there are probably moments when Cranston slips into an impersonation of the Johnson meme rather than inhabits the real man. But this is likely unavoidable for a figure by all accounts inscrutable.
You could probably reduce an analysis of All the Way to a survey of how Cranston uses his mouth. Johnson’s mouth never stops moving: when not speaking it cackles, grimaces, vices down on itself, and when otherwise not in motion Cranston’s tongue seems to be forever engaged in a process of inner cheek pushings and probings, or swipes along the teeth, as though to suggest that Johnson’s career was a whale’s endless open-mouth swim through the krill of those who worked for him, and when he wasn’t sifting the protein from the baleen, he was picking the seaweed from his teeth.
All the Way adds itself to a canon of recent political dramas that includes Lincoln, Frost/Nixon, and, less recently, All the President’s Men, and, less directly, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. Yourcenar’s book fills in the absence of a text lost to history while the others dramatize stories already told, but in each and every case, and in All the Way too, the real subject is not the past, but the present.
All the Way goes out of its way to demonstrate that Johnson’s presidency at certain junctures resembles Clinton’s or one of the Bushes’, and reminds us that what is perhaps the most transformative piece of legislation of the past 50 years—the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act is this coming June—was the result of a president crossing the aisle and wheeling and dealing his way to victory. You can’t help but recognize the commentary on the current political climate (there’s even a discharge petition subplot), and if the whole goal of dramatizing events already recorded in history books is to make us feel those stories anew and learn from them in a way that history alone has not managed to achieve, then perhaps we can forgive Schenkkan for a pair of crowd-pleasing phrases yanked so clearly from the wrong decade (“That is so not true;” “I’m just saying”), and for those sermonizing moments when Johnson, speaking directly to the audience, screeches out pleas that we understand that ugly and messy—and with dire consequences—is how hard things get done.
Does All the Way sink into hagiography? Maybe—but I found I didn’t care by the end. As an audience, the idea is, we get to know Johnson better than anyone knew him before, and the play, in climactically interleafing a famous Johnson speech with an even more famous speech of Martin Luther King’s, seeks to remind us that Johnson’s posthumous stature should be no less—and the only reason it is, in fact, less is that Johnson had the unattractive political skills to actually accomplish that of which others could only dream.
All The Way, by Robert Schenkkan, directed by Bill Rauch, and starring Bryan Cranston, runs through June 29 at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre. For tickets and further info, visit www.allthewaybroadway.com