In 1967, as Lyndon Johnson’s presidency was crumbling under the weight of Vietnam, a satire called MacBird! began a nearly yearlong run at the Village Gate. In it, Stacy Keach embodied a cartoon Johnson reconfigured as Shakespeare’s bloody thane, haunted by the ghost of his predecessor and bedeviled by the three “witches” of activism spelling his doom: students, blacks, and leftists. Controversial at the time for having its power-mad protagonist kill its Kennedy figure (“Jack O’Dunc”) just as Macbeth killed Duncan, MacBird! now seems astonishing for something else entirely. Was there really a time in our theater, and in our politics, when the two were so vitally engaged with each other? And when Johnson seemed the worst thing that could ever happen to our country?
Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way is not about a sitting president, and it’s anything but a satire. Nevertheless, thanks largely to a titanic central performance by Bryan Cranston, it pulls off an astonishing double trick. Following in the path of such reevaluations as Robert Caro’s monumental Johnson biography, it restores to our 36th president a tragic, even Shakespearean greatness. And it restores to the theater a great tradition of history plays, from Richard III on, that make thrilling the means of politics, if not always its ends.
To do this, Schenkkan, who won a Pulitzer prize in 1992 for his sprawling nine-play Kentucky Cycle, has narrowed his focus to just one year and one issue of Johnson’s presidency. The year is Johnson’s first: starting immediately after his inauguration aboard Air Force One en route from Dallas in November 1963 and ending with his landslide victory in November 1964. The issue is the Civil Rights Act, the passage of which Johnson considered a political and moral necessity. Representing the political is a roll call of senators, congressmen, hellraisers, and spooks, including the alienated Dixiecrats whom Johnson needs to keep in line if he wants to be more than an “accidental president.” Representing the moral are Martin Luther King, in a savvy, prickly performance by Brandon J. Dirden, and his band of advisers. Schenkkan structures the first half of the play mostly as a series of alternating arias in which Johnson bullies and charms and obsessively triangulates the various camps, who know what’s being done to them even as they succumb.
“Arias” is apt here; the role is operatic in size and intensity. It’s also a bit schematic, like the compulsory exercises in figure skating. Schenkkan gives Cranston a series of set pieces to perform, as if to show off his technical prowess: the Dream Replay, the Texas Tall Tale, the Telephone Multitask. Director Bill Rauch builds up the difficulty points with loads of useful business, as when Johnson picks out ties while cajoling J. Edgar Hoover (a snaky Michael McKean) or browbeats Hubert Humphrey (beamish Robert Petkoff) while being measured for a suit. (“Not too tight in the bunghole, there, Manny. … and leave me some slack for my nutsack.”) Cranston swats these bits without even looking. Nor does he belabor the impersonation. Prosthetic earlobes for that beagle look, lifts in his shoes for the looming stance, and an accurate but never overplayed accent are all he needs to bring you halfway toward the real man. How he brings you the rest of the way with nothing but words and expression is the mystery of great artistry. In any case, by the time he’s done, you may find that his Johnson — forceful, petty, envious, frightened, vulgar, sympathetic, idealistic and its opposite — has replaced the one in your memory.
Whether that’s a good thing is another question. And here’s yet another: Can a great role really exist in a play that’s not? Schenkkan is careful with facts, though they’re juggled; his dialogue, surely partly imagined, sounds convincing enough. He employs Johnson’s technique of argument through storytelling to excellent effect, especially when Johnson explains to us, as he must later explain to Humphrey, why he compromised with the Dixiecrats by removing the voting rights portions of the Civil Rights Act: “Nothin’ comes free. Nothin’. Not even ‘Good.’ Especially not ‘Good.’ When the carpenter picks up his saw, if wood could talk … it would scream.”
During Act One, which ends with the passage of that slightly denatured legislation, the pace and momentousness and sheer shamelessness of what we’re watching excuses a certain Ken Burns pan-and-scan quality to the play as a staged event. There is only one setting (by Christopher Acebo): a gladiatorial semicircle made up of wood-paneled “witness boxes” where the other 19 actors gather to watch and participate; Johnson, both bull and bullfighter, is in the middle. Screens across the back of the stage offer predictable imagery, including — must we? — the Zapruder film. Many white men in period suits spar with Johnson and blur together. Was that Senator Russell or Representative Smith? Who’s on line four? Were it not for Cranston’s apparently infinite variety, this might grow tiresome.
And indeed, in Act Two, which takes up the consequences of the bill’s passage for Johnson’s election campaign, it does. Partly this is because Johnson, in the play at least, is now plying his political wiles for purely political ends. (In truth, he kept fighting to get voting rights passed, but did not succeed until 1965.) Chumping Humphrey and throwing him under the bus over convention seating are just not as compelling as securing the right to public accommodation. As a result we get protest and convention scenes uncomfortably staged in the theater aisles to break the monotony of the single set, but this is material that film can do better. By the last fifteen minutes, the dramaturgy is reduced to choral recitations of poll numbers — and surely confetti cannons after two and a half hours are a sign of theatrical exhaustion.
Johnson could surely produce an old Texas yarn about the dangers of success, and perhaps Schenkkan would have done well to consider quitting while he was ahead, at intermission. (There is, in fact, a sequel, called The Great Society, in the works.) But the playwright was not, on the other hand, wrong to leave us thinking about consequences and collateral damage. Johnson’s great Civil Rights victories, which he fought the 1964 election in part to extend, ruined several careers; his style, however successful, probably ruined several lives. Poor Lady Bird (Betsy Aidem, perfect). And poor Walter Jenkins, his chief aide, entrapped in a morals charge. Johnson cuts him loose.
Nor was it just individuals who suffered from Johnson’s manic drive. His mastery of politics would change politics for the worse, setting in motion the backlash that would bring him and also his party down. Senator Russell warns him of the Southern forces his success will unleash: “the fellas that are comin’ up behind me are utterly without principles of any kind and you see how you like dealin’ with them. You’ll miss me when I’m gone.” By this point, we’ve seen the main fella, George Wallace, symbol of white fury and fatal division of the Democrats — or in Johnson’s vivid phrase “the turd in the punch bowl.” He was Johnson’s nightmare, but we’re all still living in it.
All the Way is at the Neil Simon Theatre through June 29.