The A.R.T. pulses this September with the electricity of a powerful hit. The energy of the full house crowd at last night’s preview of All the Way was palpable; it surged when the cast took their places on the stately set, hit a crescendo when Bryan Cranston strutted to his center spot on the oval carpet, and then kept right on climbing through three hours of complex, dense, fascinating historical drama.
The A.R.T. under Diane Paulus knows a few things about making a hit. Two years ago her restaged Porgy and Bess starring Audra MacDonald captivated Cambridge and went on to Broadway and multiple Tony awards. Ditto last year’s Pippin. All the Way is not cut from the same cloth – it is a drama rather than a musical, imported from the 2012 Oregon Shakespeare Festival – but the A.R.T production has the same excitement that flows from witnessing a Broadway blockbuster in the making.
It is fitting that the story of LBJ’s first year in office, with a focus on passing the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, premiered in a Shakespeare festival; Robert Schenkkan’s play is epic tragedy. Seventeen actors play forty-four roles; each one deeply human and ultimately flawed. The play’s end, LBJ’s landslide victory over Goldwater in 1964, is clouded by LBJ’s understanding that the best of his presidency is already behind him and that in winning the nation he lost the South. The presentiment of disaster eclipses the momentary triumph.
The play is not perfect. The bedside scene between LBJ and his long-time aide Walter rings false; the audience already has enough foreshadowing of how Walter will stumble; LBJ does not need to give him a bedside pat. The subsequent banter between LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover is too broad; it buys a few laughs based on our contemporary understanding of Hoover’s twisted homosexuality at the expense of lifting the audience out of the story’s time and place. The beginning, with all the phone conversations, may be an unavoidable way to introduce the complex story, but it feels like a Washington D.C version of Bye Bye Birdie, while the final scene is simply too long. The audience is already overwhelmed by the immensity of this effort; we don’t need to climb so many false peaks before applauding the final bows.
Those problems are, at most, fifteen minutes of the total endeavor. The other 165 minutes are riveting. As a subscriber I landed fourth row center seats. Watching Bryan Cranston face down every powerful person who populated the evening news during my youth with spitting vehemence, deep distrust, and a huge need for their love, is astounding. Mr. Cranston is phenomenal. He is so hoarse by the end of the evening I fear for his voice over the long-term, but every inflection last night was perfect. Equally impressive is his counterpart, Reed Birney, who is such milquetoast as Hubert Humphrey one is almost glad Humphrey never achieved the presidency (until you recall who beat him). The cast is uniformly fine; Dan Butler as George Wallace and Betsy Aidern and Susannah Schulman as various political wives and D.C. accessories all bring depth to small roles. One fascinating aspect of the multiple casting is how actor’s play across the political spectrum. Birney is Strom Thurmond as well as Humphrey; Schulman is both Muriel Humphrey and Lurleen Wallace.
There are actually 47 characters in the play. John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy are often present in spirit, while Bobby Kennedy is a ubiquitous, unseen force. LBJ fears and loathes Bobby so much that he despairs Bobby winning the senate seat from New York, even as it consolidates LBJ’s majority in the Senate.
Walking home after the show my head swam in the permutations of intrigue, blackmail, and double-crossing LBJ and his contemporaries went through to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and launch The Great Society. Lyndon relished the political game so much that his machinations supersede his purpose. In the frantic, heady days after JFK’s assassination, the accidental president states a commitment to civil rights, but it is secondary to his passion for political chess. The play jumps well beyond the old question of whether the end justifies the means. The end appears to be nothing more than a distant marker selected because it will ensure a convoluted means. Almost fifty years later LBJ’s means are little more than historical footnotes and fodder for excellent theater, while the actual product of his effort transformed American society forever.
All the Way plays at the A.R.T. in Cambridge, MA through October 12, 2013, but don’t bother trying to get tickets – it is sold out.