Lyndon In The Middle: All the Way

03/26/2014 4:00 AM |

All the Way
Neil Simon Theatre

Most audience members will want to see this lengthy political drama about Lyndon Johnson for one reason: Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston making his Broadway debut. And though he has a large cast backing him up, including Michael McKean as a wormlike J. Edgar Hoover and Brandon J. Dirden as a taciturn Martin Luther King, All the Way (through June 29) is basically a one-man show—and, as such, often leaves a lot to be desired.

Cranston is capable of major work, as he proved on his signature television series, but he seems to think that acting on stage means Going Big. He’s not a natural fit for the large and paunchy Johnson, and he works hard to make up for that by slouching exaggeratedly and leading with his stomach. He wiggles his jowls and squints and does all kinds of busy work with his face and body, trying as much as possible to will himself into being a bigger and cruder type of man; he also works hard at his blustery Southern accent. This kind of performance impresses some people because you can see just how hard Cranston is pushing superficialities that don’t come naturally to him, but his extreme external characterization rarely connects to any kind of believable or plausible interior life.

Written by Robert Schenkkan, All the Way covers the year after the Kennedy assassination, when Johnson pushed through his landmark civil rights legislation. We watch him wheel and deal, threaten and cajole, pontificate and joke. We see him bully his wife, Lady Bird (Betsy Aidem), and we see him ruthlessly cut ties with Walter Jenkins (Christopher Liam Moore), a top aide and close friend arrested in a restroom for sexual misconduct with another man. We see him deal with Hoover and King, and we observe just what it takes to get reelected and get things done in Washington. At the end of nearly three hours, the play asks us to be surprised that you have to get your hands dirty if you want to accomplish something politically, which should surprise no one.

Schenkkan seems inspired by Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, with its detailed look at our political process. But what felt fluid and plausible onscreen feels awkward and false onstage; it’s a fast-moving but inert production, rushing from point to point with helpful screen projections of names and dates. Cranston does have a few quieter moments, when Johnson directly addresses the audience and talks about his past, in which his full, piercing talent is engaged: he stops worrying about his accent and his posture and just shares some pain and tells some truth. Hopefully he’ll return to the stage soon in a role more suited to his talent.