"If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: President can't swim," fumed Lyndon B. Johnson.
THE massed crowd outside the theater on 52nd Street the other night was waiting to get a glimpse of their TV idol, Bryan Cranston. They see him as the mighty and changeable criminal from the award-winning hit "Breaking Bad."
But inside the theater, instead, we had a larger-than-life consummate politician, a man towering above a fray he was ever creating, the living breathing image of the 36th President of the United States--Lyndon Baines Johnson, in playwright Robert Schenkkan's "All The Way."
I AM not a real drama critic; I just report what I liked and what I saw. So I am here to tell you that I think actor Cranston is one of the greatest artists I have ever seen in person on the stage. He is LBJ to the life (and I knew this president and his ladybird and many of their famous aides.)
Here they are, recreated in the flesh by playwright Schenkkan in an incredible drama. Bill Rauch directs the show as Napoleon must have directed his armies.
This play that focuses on Lyndon's first perilous year in the White House is one of the most fabulous theater things ever. It is staged like a powerful moving musical, but without the music.
It doesn't have a cast of thousands, but it does have a stage full of people who represent the Senators, Congressmen, Governors of states, their women, their advisors, the agitators for and against the Civil Rights movement, the anxious-to-be-vice-president Hubert Humphrey, the conflicted Dr. Martin Luther King, the villainous J. Edgar Hoover and other real and significant persons in the time line that begins with LBJ immediately after the death of John Kennedy. It follows him for his year as president-by-assassination, until his uncertain and suspenseful win over Barry Goldwater in 1964.
It rehabilitates our ideas about LBJ and what he accomplished that JFK couldn't, and how he did it with his celebrated down-home-isms, his vulgarity, his lies, self-pity and dictatorial manipulations that everyone knows about and either loathes or celebrates. Bryan Cranston IS LBJ; he seems to grow taller and more formidable, profane and grand, crying, pitiful, gesticulating, hiking up his trousers and rearranging his privates, and asking always, "Is that a threat?!"
I won't go on. If you get a ticket to this show, produced by someone I knew as a young careerist in theater -- Jeffrey Richards -- with the backing of 17 others, including Harvey Weinstein -- well, you'll be one of the lucky ones.
You'll see and understand better the towering ego, political acumen, power-grabbing personality, honesty, the truth and the lies of one of the greatest characters America has ever produced. And I think, in the long run, one of its greatest presidents.
And there is another character onstage at the Neil Simon...his/her/its name is Tony. And we'll be seeing Tony again, I figure, at the Antoinette Perry Awards, whenever they happen again!
Beg, borrow or steal a ticket to recent history made real again, in "All The Way." Hooray for everyone connected but for my friend, Bryan Cranston there is no accolade great enough. Even the British theater has never produced a more gifted actor.
If there's a broken heart for every light on Broadway, as the old saying goes -- there is definitely a lighter heart for the literary crowd that celebrates annually for Hunter College. The mover and shaker is Lewis Frumkes, the director, who runs their Writing Center and commands the faithful.
In this distinguished crowd for dinner on a recent eve, there was none other than Maurice Tempelsman, the diamond entrepreneur who made Jacqueline Kennedy's later years so pleasant. He was chatting up archaeologist Iris Love. He told her about the time he and Jackie visited her site near Bodrum on the Turkish coast where she had located the lost Temple of Aphrodite. Said Iris, "I missed this important visit by two people I so admire; I was probably in jail at the time!" (Iris went regularly up against her Turkish overseers who were guarding her site, because they never quite believed that her fluent Greek didn't signify that she was a Greek enemy.) "I came to believe, in time, that the Turks and the Greeks were exactly the same people by different names and languages and they were both equally important to me, in that they had mastery over most of the important art produced in the ancient world."
Also on hand -- the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Cleopatra" historian, Stacy Schiff, one of my favorite VIP's, as well as the gifted mystery writer Mary Higgins Clark...Malachy McCourt who sang some Irish songs...Joyce Carol Oates, Nelson DeMille, Bruce Jay Friedman, Richard Johnson -- the man who 'knows' New York for the Post...Denise LeFrak...as well as Lincoln Center's Lisa Schiff.
Joyce Cowan, benefactor of the NY Folk Art Museum, Hunter College president Jennifer Raab. It all honored leading cognitive scientist Steven Pinker and philanthropist/ novelist Rebecca Goldstein. (I haven't room for all of the others, equally swell.)
A huge cake was produced by Doubles with every writer's name. Author Barbara Goldsmith said to Iris, "I'll eat your slice with your name if you'll eat mine." They did. I am really sorry I had to miss this event, which is a favorite.
YOU CAN'T judge a book by its cover, and you can't judge a movie by its trailer, but you can be tempted to sample the goods. So, with that in mind, the new trailer for "Grace of Monaco" looks tempting. This stars Nicole Kidman as Princess Grace, who was the former movie star Grace Kelly, and Tim Roth as Prince Rainier, ruler of the little principality that Grace, by her presence, transformed.
The film appears to show Grace in the early, struggling years of her reign, missing America, missing her work, trapped by her duties. Kidman doesn't look anything like Kelly, but that's usually not the point of this kind of thing -- it's in capturing the essence. Hard to tell by from the trailer, but Kidman, swanking around in 1960s couture, certainly has the air of a princess!
The movie -- which opens at the Cannes Film Festival in May -- doesn't include Grace's tragic death, but that awful accident aside, I don't think she ever was terribly happy as Princess Grace. But she made her bargain and stuck with it. I recall an interview Grace did with Barbara Walters a number of years before her death. She was gracious, still beautiful, but brittle with disappointment and ennui.
(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)
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