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As LBJ, Cranston goes 'All the Way'.

All the Way

Neil Simon Theater; 1,433 seats: $137 top

Playwright: Robert Schenkkan

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Brandon J. Dirden

What do you say we take up a collection and send every one of those clowns in Congress to "All the Way," Robert Schenkkan's jaw-dropping political drama about President Lyndon B. Johnson's Herculean efforts (and Pyrrhic sacrifices) to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed. Bryan Cranston--three-time Emmy winner and everybody's favorite bad boy as the scholarly drug czar in "Breaking Bad"--owns the role of LBJ, cracking the politician's hard shell to expose the man's personal crisis of conscience. But the shocker is watching legislators legislating, crossing the aisle, however reluctantly, to get difficult things done.

Johnson was famously crude, rude, and ruthless. Schenkkan, a Pulitzer Prize winner for "The Kentucky Cycle," packs all that into his rich character study, and Cranston embraces it all with his no-holds-barred performance. He's a big man, putting on a big show as the natural politician who doesn't hesitate to use every trick in the book to get results. Instead of trying to capture the entirety of this complex character and his incredible legacy, the scribe shrewdly focuses on one pivotal moment of his career--the first historic achievement of his Great Society legislation, the hard-fought passage of the Civil Rights Act.

In this beautifully built dramatic piece, it takes the scribe just under three perfectly paced hours to cover that tumultuous year, from November 1963 to November 1964, in which vice president Johnson assumed the presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, engineered the passage of a landmark civil rights bill, and was elected in his own right as our 37th resident. That is to say, it was the year all hell broke loose.

That's a lot of material, smartly orchestrated by helmer Bill Rauch. Working with a cast of 20 pros who come and go in multiple roles, Rauch keeps order in the ranks by arranging them artfully on the raised benches of Christopher Acebo's unit set. The creatives add visual energy to the big, broad stage by letting the action spill over into the house, with peace marches, protest marches and a rip-roaring political convention taking over the aisles and the boxes.

The style is Expressionism Lite, meaning that the characters are realish, not quite caricatures, but not entirely human, either. The exception, of course, is LBJ, whose authenticity is achieved with a one-two punch from scribe Schenkkan's probing characterization and Cranston's penetrating performance. A canny psychologist, LBJ gives friend and foe alike exactly what they want--and before the victim knows what hit him, the big Texan has picked the poor guy's pocket and stolen his vote right out of his wallet.

It's quite clear, though, that LBJ is serious about his commitment to civil rights. For all his backroom wheeling and dealing, he gets those last crucial votes by appealing to the legislators to just do what's right. Getting himself elected is a different story, with black freedom fighters threatening to withdraw their support every time Johnson makes a concession to the Dixiecrats.

It's a thankless game, as Schenkkan makes clear in the second act, when Johnson sacrifices his core supporters of the once-solid South, knowing full well that they might never return. And he was right. Fifty years later, they're still wandering in the wilderness.

CREDITS: A Jeffrey Richards, Louise Gund, Jerry Frankel, Stephanie R McClelland, Double Gemini Prods., Rebecca Gold, Scott M. Delman, Barbara H. Freitag, Harvey Weinstein, Gene Korf, William Berlind, Luigi Caiola, Gutterman Chernoff, Jam Theatricals, Gabrielle Palitz, Cheryl Wiesenfeld, Will Trice presentation, with Rob Hinderliter & Dominic LaRufa Jr., Michael Crea, PJ Miller, of an Oregon Shakespeare Festival and American Repertory Theater production of a play in two acts by Robert Schenkkan. DIRECTED BY Bill Rauch. OPENED March 6, 2014. REVIEWED March 5. RUNNING TIME: 2 HOURS, 50 MIN. CAST: Bryan Cranston, Brandon J. Dirden, Robert Petkoff, John McMartin, Michael McKean, Christopher Liam Moore, William Jackson Harper, Eric Lenox Abrams, Peter Jay Fernandez, Rob Campbell, Betsy Aidem, Susannah Schulman, Roslyn Ruff, James Eckhouse, J. Bernard Galloway, Ethan Phillips, Richard Poe, Steve Vinovich. Christopher Gurr, Bill Timoney
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Title Annotation:Lyndon B. Johnson
Author:Stasio, Marilyn
Article Type:Theater review
Date:Mar 11, 2014
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