NEW YORK — Since the White House is, in essence, the biggest stage in the world, it's probably no surprise that Americans crave presidents who are larger than life. We also expect our leaders to relate to our tawdry selves, which accounts for how some holders of that esteemed office find themselves the victims of contradictory expectations. But there's no question that actor Bryan Cranston, the star of Robert Schenkkan's juicy "All the Way," has found a way to both ennoble and humanize the 36th president of these United States. Cranston, star of "Breaking Bad," offers up a restless, hypnotically intense physicality coupled with an intimately forged vulnerability. Cranston is both recognizably Lyndon Baines Johnson of Stonewall, Texas, and way, way bigger than the real LBJ.
To quite a remarkable extent, Cranston provokes in his audience a significant re-examination of his political man, a figure whose tumultuous era now is sufficiently distant for many members of a Broadway audience to have no firsthand memory of LBJ's years in office.
Cranston, whose fame has been packing the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway for Bill Rauch's solidly (and weightily) directed production and the actor's Broadway debut, is greatly aided in that quest by Schenkkan's decision to focus his sprawling but entertaining — even at times rollicking — biographical drama not on Johnson's misadventures in and around the matter of Vietnam, but on his attempts to force a Civil Rights Act down the throats of a reluctant and ever-wiley Congress, even as violence threatened to engulf the nation. Schenkkan plans to deal with the rest of Johnson in a second part of this story, slated to bow in Oregon this summer.
Schenkkan has not penned a hagiography by any means — the ruthless and mercurial side of Johnson is very much in the foreground, especially in Act 2, but he paints Johnson as a rugged, profane realist, capable of Clintonian triangulation but also of, it seems here, threading a crucial needle through a very tiny hole by sheer force of Texan personality.
This is hardly the first sympathetic portrait of a political leader to land on Broadway in recent years, nor the first play that looks at such a figure through an intimate prism. At times, "All the Way" puts you in mind of Michael Frayn's "Democracy," the play about former chancellor of West Germany Willy Brandt. At times, it lands closer to Holland Taylor's adoring "Ann," the solo show about Johnson's late fellow Texan, former Gov. Ann Richards. Schenkkan's piece, though, is a long way from a one-man show, featuring such real-life characters as J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean), whom he has behave as you might expect, Hubert Humphrey (Robert Petkoff), George Wallace (Rob Campbell) and Martin Luther King Jr. (Brandon J. Dirden), whose negotiations with Johnson function as a kind of story behind the story.
But what this play (which I think is Schenkkan's best drama to date) does better than most political biographies is find the germs of the future in very specific issues of the past — in this case, the Democratic Party's loss of the South after it force-fed that region the very bill with which this play is concerned. Schenkkan understands the appeal of such dramatic irony, offering up the rueful character of the genteel southerner Sen. Richard Russell, (John McMartin), who suggests that Johnson and his allies' actions will create a much less-gentlemanly brand of conservative in the generation that is to follow. And, of course, so it went. This was, we are made to understand, a legislative moment that changed the political face of the nation.
The supporting actors (superbly cast by Rauch) are mostly very strong (Petkoff's Humphrey feels a tad unrooted), but there is a very harrowing performance by Christopher Liam Moore, who plays Johnson's loyal aide, Walter Jenkins, who gets caught in a sex act in a public restroom and does not enjoy the support of his expedient boss thereafter. Some civil rights, Schenkkan clearly is saying, were longer than others in coming.
Although unremarkable and plagued by some unnecessary digital media that mostly pulls you out of the human drama and the period, the conceit of the action taking place in a political chamber (Christopher Acebo is the designer) does allow Rauch to let crucial historical characters linger, seated, in a spotlight as other scenes take the foreground, staring out as they try to make their silent case or hold others accountable.
For all that, it's sill Cranston who most will be coming to see, and this elongated actor does not disappoint for a moment, driving the show with a truly riveting life-force and, it seems, painting every up and down in this insecure but notably self-aware president's life on his visage, which he seems to pull and stretch in limitless directions. Cranston knows the play wants you to root for his guy, to think that he was going about as far in the right direction as a man like him could possibly have been expected to go, given the circumstances. It is case made with formidable theatrical force.
"All the Way" plays on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St. Call 877-250-2929 or go to neilsimontheatre.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun