A new play about Lyndon Johnson– and a star vehicle for “Breaking Bad”‘s Bryan Cranston– opened last month in Cambridge MA. From the review in the Times:
Concentrating on two parallel story lines — Johnson’s fight to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and his maneuvering to secure a full term as president — the play dangles more subplots than a Congressional bill has earmarks: the sordid attempts by J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean) to discredit the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Brandon J. Dirden); the infamous killing of three young men seeking to register black voters in Mississippi; the battle to seat black delegates from Mississippi at the 1964 Democratic National Convention that followed; and even comparatively minor incidents like the arrest of Johnson’s longtime aide-de-camp, Walter Jenkins (Christopher Liam Moore), for having sex in a men’s room.
“All the Way” works just fine as a PowerPoint lesson in political history, but it ultimately accrues minimal dramatic momentum. (The polished wooden set by Christopher Acebo is designed to suggest a Congressional chamber.) For policy wonks with an avid interest in the backroom deal making that doesn’t turn up on C-Span, the play will offer plenty to chew on. And yet for all its admirable attention to the complex currents of the period it covers, the wide focus drains the play of the narrative drive that makes for engrossing theater. (A countdown clock, noting the number of days to the presidential election, cannot really engender much suspense, since most in the audience will know how that contest ended.)
Theater rooted in history always faces a fundamental problem. Hew too closely to the complicated crosscurrents of the story and you risk shapelessness; take too many liberties in streamlining the drama and you’re no longer in the realm of fact. With the exception of his comparatively unshaded portrait of Johnson, Mr. Schenkkan comes down firmly on the side of complexity, which may be the honorable path, but not necessarily the more rewarding one for the audience.