ALL THE WAY at A.R.T. or: tl;dr

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themysteriousgrowl
Broadway Legend
joined:11/10/10
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ALL THE WAY at A.R.T. or: tl;dr#1
Posted: 9/16/13 at 11:41am

Robert Schenkkans ALL THE WAY left me with mixed feelings. I wanted to love it, but in the end, I mostly appreciated it. If you saw Lincoln, you know the blueprint. Its marketed as a bio-drama, but its actually the story of passing controversial bill through Congress in this case, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the behind-the-scenes glad-handing and back-stabbing required to do that. The play opens with Lyndon Johnson aboard Air Force One, just after being sworn in following the assassination of JFK; from there, act one unfolds as a flurry of medium-length expository scenes. The language is naturalistic and accessible, but its a barrage of information, 90 minutes of fast-moving chatter about characters we never meet (Barry Goldwater, Bobby Kennedy) or characters that pop up for single scenes, played by ensemble members handling multiple roles. (And this being the early 60s, it seems like all the men are wearing the same suit, making some minor characters tough to keep track of.) The audience gets a lot thrown at them in the first half, and if you have no prior knowledge of the SNCC (pronounced casually as Snick) or the lost-to-history MFDP, you may, at times, feel a little at sea. At best, the first act engages on the merits of the performances and how compelling the history is; at worst, its drawn out and boring, even some short scenes feeling endless. The cumulative effect is a little alienating.

The pay-off, though, happily comes after that groundwork has been laid, and the second act unfolds with greater intensity, character development, and dramatic action. No longer are facts whizzing at us like bullets, as the important ones have been embedded into the story and can now be active pawns in the unspooling plot lines. A heavier second-act focus on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his black activist colleagues helps significantly. The script still meanders a bit, but now we see the characters as people rather than vessels for exposition, and the best stuff happens as the story hurtles toward its conclusion I assume its no spoiler to say the passage of the bill and Johnsons subsequent re-election. Perhaps because thats the stuff of well-known history, the stakes never get high enough for a knockout dramatic climax, and the final moment should be punched-up or rethought altogether. Its a little dramaturgically slimey. There are clear parallels to (and several pointed mentions of) Lincolns administration, and topical similarities to todays Congress and the red/blue divisiveness under Obama particularly about the Affordable Care Act are worth noting.

The direction by Bill Rauch is of the traffic-cop variety. The show is well-paced. The staging is clean, if unremarkable and unimaginative, though thats partially due to limitations imposed by the large, implacable, and bland unit set. Im not sure if its because we sat second row, but the frequent back-wall projections meant to evoke settings the oval office, the Rose Garden, a Mississippi crime scene, a front porch in Alabama didnt work for me. I could objectively process what they meant to a given scene, but everything played downstage center, left, or right, on a solid blue floor enclosed by three large Congressional-style seating pieces prevented any outside atmosphere from permeating. Perhaps a view from further back would allow the scope to be taken in; I saw a functional but sterile set with boring projections.

Saving the best news for last, the cast is uniformly impressive.

Though the play itself is equitable to its myriad characters Dr. King feels, at times, as significant a character as the president this production is firmly focused on Bryan Cranstons Johnson. (Wut?) And Im happy to report its one hell of a performance. At the third preview, there were more than a few line stumbles, and no more than by Mr. Cranston himself. But its a monster role and must be very intimidating on paper. The play makes two or three obligatory digressions into LBJs personal life (Lady Bird is a supportive punching bag who has him on a diet), but since its mostly exposition disguised as drama, its up to the actors to craft their characters from the ground up, and Cranston is no slouch. His LBJ commands attention, publicly astute in the face of crises, but privately filled with paralyzing and almost paranoid insecurity. Its a physically impressive performance, inhabiting every square inch of his being; he has your attention as the silent side of a phone conversation, his eyes squinting, mouth drawn back in incredulous anger, with a posture somewhere between a panther ready to attack and house of cards about to fold. He spits and seethes and stalks and strikes, manipulating everyone around him even while racked by self-doubt. Hes complicated and authentic, a portrait of political idealism surviving through sheer force of will. Its a reminder to me, at least that Mr. Cranston is one of the most versatile American actors working today. If the show comes to New York, hes got his Tony nomination in Jan Maxwells proverbial bag.

Brandon J. Dirden, so wonderful in Signatures exquisite PIANO LESSON last season, is by turns powerful and vulnerable as Martin Luther King Jr., morally ambiguous and very, very human. Michael McKeans J. Edgar Hoover proves a tough nut to crack. Its a muted performance; he often stares blankly when confronted by LBJ, and only truly comes alive -- maniacally, almost comically -- during his relentless hunting of MLK. Its not an ineffective performance, but hes impenetrable in his interiority, and McKeans choices puzzle as often as they engage.

Lincoln alum and TV stalwart Dakin Matthews is perfection as the powerful Southern Democrat segregationist senator Dick Russell, who spearheads a 57-day filibuster predicated, of course, on the protection of states rights. And journeyman character actor Reed Birney imbues LBJ colleague-cum-lackey Hubert Humphrey with self-awareness and dignity, which is impressive, since the character could easily come off as a pathetic, ineffectual hanger-on.

The ensemble is strong, and many in the cast get their respective moments to shine, but noteworthy among them is William Jackson Harper as the fiery activist Stokely Carmichael, whose angry and acute voice of reason is often undercut by the sad realities of the politics surrounding the CRA.

I dont think the play can un-stick itself from the trap of so many bio-historical dramas, where complicated events involving multiple players must be telescoped into 2-3 hours, but shaving 20 minutes off of act one would be a big help. Both ALL THE WAY and Lincoln center on Southern, socially progressive, yarn-spinning commanders-in-chief. In my opinion, Lincoln worked due in large part to Kushners dazzling flights of linguistic fancy, taking big political ideas and Shakespeare-sizing them. Schenkkan writes far more naturalistically. Thats a fine and reasonable choice, but the sheer density of it feels repetitive and prosaic. So, either disguise that exposition better or trim off some of the fat. The most oft-heard comment in the lobby afterwards was I liked the second act better than the first, and I didnt overhear any out-and-out raves, save for Mr. Cranston.

But as evidenced by the sold-out run at ART, this play is selling on Cranstons name and will do the same if it transfers. No matter how good it is, this isnt the sort of play that runs and runs, but it would be nice if it were good enough to be remembered for its merits as much as for the star turn at its center.
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themysteriousgrowl
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ALL THE WAY at A.R.T. or: tl;dr#2
Posted: 9/21/13 at 4:29pm
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chrisampm2
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joined:5/26/07
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ALL THE WAY at A.R.T. or: tl;dr#2
Posted: 9/21/13 at 4:42pm
Thanks so much for the thorough review and the link.
jas1234
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joined:9/3/11
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ALL THE WAY at A.R.T. or: tl;dr#3
Posted: 9/22/13 at 11:50pm
Saw this Saturday night, was not familiar with this "history", and was surprised by how absorbed I was in the play I thought that Schenkkan's juxtaposition of Lyndon Johnson's quest for legitimacy, following his "accidental" ascension to power, coupled with the story of the historic Civil Rights Bill and the seating of the Mississippi delegation at the Democratic Convention to be very effective dramatic story-telling. It's a remarkable condensation of what was, obviously, an extraordinary year in American politics. Our current President could certainly learn a lesson in how to cross the aisle from the famed Johnson 'Master of the Senate' technique. The play, however, is overlong and one wonders at the emphasis on George Wallace. Was he really that much of a threat to Johnson and once he's counted out in the Democratic primary, it does seem superfluous to have a scene with him trying to change parties and court Barry Goldwater. Neither Goldwater nor Bobby Kennedy appear in the play and yet they were the major players politically in 1964, and we constantly hear of LBJ's anticipation of a Kennedy opposition. I am not sure that the Hoover-King animus really pays off as the playwright intends, and that may be due to the staging. However, it all feels somewhat anti-climactic after the Convention.
The first act seemed more focused and builds like a suspense drama as we follow the progress of the Civil Rights bill. I liked the director's use of the entire theatre space and felt the scenic design effectively served the play. As for Bryan Cranston, he is terrifically persuasive and believable as LBJ-- it's a major performance. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, though I wish Hoover (played by the reliable Michael McKean) was a little more formidable and that the fine Brandon Dirden's Martin Luther King had a little more fire. Overall this is worth seeing. Does anyone know if this is going to come to New York- there seems to be a theatre jam this season, with so many musicals coming in. I hope it does. It would be refreshing to see this kind of epic play on Broadway. Wonder if the Times will be reviewing it in Boston, given the play's historic subject matter. Did anybody see it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival?
A Director
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ALL THE WAY at A.R.T. or: tl;dr#4
Posted: 9/23/13 at 1:25am
I saw All The Way at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Playing LBJ was Jack Willis and he was excellent. This season, he's playing King Lear. I liked the production and the play. The production was popular. To refresh my memory, I read the script published by OSF.

To me, I don't think Act I is too long or little more than exposition. Both in reading and seeing the production, all the scenes are forward moving. In 1964, I was a teenager, so am familiar with most of the events in the play. I watched the Democratic Convention on TV and remember seeing the "fight' over seating the MFDP delegates. Yes, watching the production helped refresh my memory.

I don't think it's important for Goldwater in All The Way. Most of the drama in 1964 was with the Democrats. As for George Wallace, he probably was a bit of a threat. One of the key lines in the first act comes at the end. LBJ: The Democratic Party just lost the South for the rest of my lifetime..." We see this begin to be played out in the second act.

To me, the scenes with J. Edgar Hoover are necessary for the story. I found the scene where Hoover prepares the box to send to King chilling. Yes, the OSF audience laughed at the scene where LBJ and Hoover discuss Walter Jenkins' being gay.

One of my favorite lines in the second act is LBJ: Wait 'til the party of Lincoln gets some slick, sweet-smiling candidate. Somebody at little more presentable." I saw All The Way in August 2012 and when I heard the line, I thought of Mitt.

Both the set and projections worked for me because they allowed the action to flow from one scene to the next. I wasn't bothered by the 3 hour running time. Three hour productions are not unusual at OSF. This season, My Fair Lady, Two Trains Running, A Streetcar Named Desire, King Lear and Cymbeline all ran almost three hours and one or two ran longer.

Robert Schenkkan has written a second LBJ called The Great Society. It will premiere next summer at OSF with Jack Willis again playing LBJ. Bobby Kennedy is a character.
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themysteriousgrowl
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ALL THE WAY at A.R.T. or: tl;dr#5
Posted: 9/25/13 at 5:27pm
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Wee Thomas2
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joined:2/28/12
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ALL THE WAY at A.R.T. or: tl;dr#6
Posted: 9/30/13 at 10:02am
Agree wholeheartedly with the OP. Saw the matinee yesterday (moved up so Cranston could get to LA last night), and he puts on a whale of a performance. Whole show was great -- there are a couple scenes they could cut, to get this under 3 hours.

Male cast and roles were all very good.

Female roles were quite thin, other than Coretta Scott King and Fannie Lou Hamer (both played by the same actress).

Can easily see a Tony for Cranston if they can get this to B'way during his busy schedule.
15minutecall
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themysteriousgrowl
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ALL THE WAY at A.R.T. or: tl;dr#8
Posted: 10/1/13 at 8:08am
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