It would have been easy for “All the Way” to be bad. It boasts a popular television actor who is not familiar with stage acting playing a crass Texan who was never meant to be president. The play covers one year in the Oval Office over the course of three hours. However, Robert Schenkkan’s superb writing and “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston’s outstanding performance carry the show, making those three hours fly.
“All the Way” examines President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s first year in office, including his relationships with his staff, J. Edgar Hoover (an incredible Michael McKean, “Family Tree”) and, most compellingly, Brandon J. Durden (“Clybourne Park”) who portrays Dr. Martin Luther King. In a cast of 23, all but four play multiple roles, from Congressmen to butlers, to key members of the Civil Rights Movement.
Bryan Cranston’s performance is nothing short of enthralling. Cranston, who nails LBJ’s accent and appearance, captures Johnson’s rough manner as well as his extreme vulnerability. His scenes with Lady Bird, played by the endearing Besty Adiem (“Celebration”), showcase both LBJ’s softness and frustrations. Cranston also gets plenty of laughs in some of the president’s more informal moments.
Although the show is all about Cranston, there are plenty of standout performances that drive the show, including Eric Lenox Abrams as David Dennis in a chilling eulogy scene, and McKean’s sometimes funny, other times cold, J. Edgar Hoover.
The creative set design, by Christopher Acebo, underscores the fact that all eyes were on LBJ during his first year. A theater-in-the-round places the Oval Office in the center of the Senate benches, where much of the cast sits and watches when they are not in a scene. The particularly powerful opening scene shows this quite well, as the newly sworn-in president talks in his sleep, clearly having a nightmare. Twenty-two other figures stare at him in silence, invading a private and internal moment. Shawn Sagady’s thoughtful projection design aids the story, and does not distract from the performances.
Although the acting and writing were superb, a few technical elements left something to be desired. Bill Rauch’s direction, though generally well-done, feels too campy for this subject matter at times, particularly in moments when the entire cast freezes onstage for President Johnson to break the fourth wall. Dramatic and clever lighting design was ruined by the overuse of a follow spot perennially on Cranston’s face, unnecessary in the 1,400 seat Neil Simon Theatre.
This marathon of a play keeps the audience on its toes for the entire piece. Hardly a moment goes by in which there is not tension in the room, unless broken by one of LBJ’s crude yet endearing jokes. Focusing on the Civil Rights Movement gives the show heart and palatability for the average audience member, who might not be so familiar with politics. “All the Way” is a must-see for any history buff or theatergoer this season.
“All the Way” began previews on Feb. 10 and opened March 6.