I’m nearly always a solo theatergoer, but saw All the Way (the LBJ show at the Neil Simon) with friends. It was delightful for two reasons: first, the four of us sat down afterwards and discussed our thoughts on the show. I know it seems bizarre to get such a kick of talking about a play, but it reminded me that theater is a communal event, and shows like this in particular are really made to be discussed.
The other delightful thing about seeing All the Way with friends was that all three were English, and fairly unfamiliar with that era of history. I’m a big fan of Robert Caro’s LBJ biographies, so I was a lot more familiar with the story, though I’m no expert either. But given that they were English, I got to pretend to be an expert, and that was a lot of fun. I had tons of little nuggets to share at intermission about Johnson’s weight troubles, his wife’s real name, how much he hated the Vice Presidency, and so on. They were, of course, too polite and English to tell me to buzz off.
The first act dealt with Johnson’s ascension to the presidency, his delightful colorful personality, and his brilliant (and sneaky!) leadership during the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The second act — which all four of us agreed was superior — told the story of his 1964 reelection campaign. I didn’t expect the second act to be better, because I think Johnson’s political machinations are really fascinating. But in act two, his character really comes to life. His presidential run really brings his insecurities and neuroses into play: He’s paranoid, he’s anxious to cover up his shady dealings, he’s mercurial. He’s just about to do incredible damage to the presidency (with the “credibility gap”) and the country (with the Vietnam War, which is barely mentioned). And he’s just mesmerizing.
All this is wonderfully portrayed by Bryan Cranston. Mr. Cranston mimics Johnson both physically and vocally. So much so that from our seats in the rear mezzanine, his muddled, throaty sound was a little hard to make out at times. (We moved to the front mezzanine at intermission and had no trouble hearing from then on.) But most of all, he’s so dynamic that I really felt as though I were watching a Shakespearian character, an incredibly fascinating, incredibly flawed man.
The play itself felt as though it could have just as easily been a movie or a TV show: I do wish the playwright (Robert Schenkkan, who also wrote the Kentucky Cycle) and director (Bill Rauch) came up with some more interesting theatrical possibilities could have been explored. I can’t quite put my finger on what I mean by that, except to say that my friends felt they were watching a documentary recreation of events, rather than a live and dynamic piece of theater. As it is, a Senate-like set is backed by occasional documentary footage along the back wall. Various historical figures weave in and out (Lady Bird, Hubert Humphrey, Martin Luther King, Jr., J. Edgar Hoover), as do various historical events (Gulf of Tonkin, Mississippi Freedom Summer, the 1964 Democratic convention). It all remains a consistently interesting, quick-moving play. You never doubt, though, that without Cranston’s performance, this piece would just fall apart. My theory is that this is because it tries to do a little too much. It shows us too many aspects of Johnson’s personality, too many events, too many people. And even with a three hour show, it’s not enough time to really figure this guy (and this era) out.
I think they’re just going to have to do what Robert Caro did and put together a play that is many thousands of pages long and 40 years in the making. According to the playwright’s bio, they’re debuting a sequel (“The Great Society”) at Oregon Shakespeare Festival this summer, so maybe they’re doing just that.