Spoiler alert: Bryan Cranston lives to see another day. In his current role as President Lyndon Baines Johnson, that is.
“Make you feel a little squeamish?” he asks the audience in the 36th president’s rumbling Texas drawl in All the Way, a crackling interpretation of LBJ’s first year in office and his backroom brawling for civil rights legislation. The show runs through October 12th at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Near the end of the play, having just won a hard-fought re-election, the political animal refuses to celebrate, knowing what’s next: “The sun will come up,” he says, narrowing his eyes and setting his lantern jaw, “and the knives will come out.”
The performance further confirms Cranston’s remarkable gift: he inhabits the shrewd and comically profane LBJ’s suits and slippers so thoroughly, even the most diehard Breaking Bad fans will forget Walter White for a night. Except that All the Way, directed by Bill Rauch and written by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan, revolves around a familiar theme.
“People think I want great power,” LBJ says in a rare, momentary crisis of confidence, “but what I want is great solace.”
After the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the beginning of his successor’s “accidental” presidency, Johnson waged battle with the U.S. Congress to craft the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Alongside his bargaining sessions with Sens. Hubert Humphrey, Everett Dirksen and others, the motel negotiations of African-American leaders including Stokely Carmichael, Roy Wilkins and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (in a fine-tuned performance by Brandon J. Dirden) play out in alternating scenes. Michael McKean – David St. Hubbins to you Spinal Tap fans – plays the old scandal-monger J. Edgar Hoover with slicked hair and eyebrows that stand out in the half-shadows of the gallery.
The stage is wrapped by those tiered benches, with cast members coming and going as the verbal action takes place in front of a half-dozen video screens that deftly change the setting, from drab interiors to the the soft bloom of the Rose Garden. When the “Freedom Summer” volunteers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman are murdered in Mississippi, the screens show a thicket at twilight; a hydraulic lift at center stage, used to bring LBJ’s Oval Office desk up from below, becomes a shallow grave out of which perspiring diggers haul a dead body wrapped in a dirty sheet.
Even in its most searing moments, All the Way never strays far from comic relief. The radical activist Carmichael, played by William Jackson Harper, incensed at the coverup of the students’ murders, disputes the suggestion that the three young men could have gone AWOL on a whim. Sure, he snarls with heavy sarcasm: “I always set my car on fire before I take a weekend off.”
Cranston, it will come as little surprise to his legion of fans, is electric with the job of acting, relishing LBJ’s infamous locker-room language, which ranges from “bunghole” to “sumbitch.” “Jim’s become a tad more helpful since I stepped on his pecker!” he crows about one adversary.
He tells shaggy-dog stories and physically invades his fellow actors’ space to bend their will. Sitting down for tea with King, he drops endless spoonfuls of sugar in the china cup, then swirls a gulp like mouthwash. Wearing bulky headphones, he castigates Hoover for attempting to defame King with a recording of a secret liaison – “This is not helping!” – yet cackles gleefully at the sounds on the tape.
“We’re making history here, Everett,” he tells the Illinois Republican, “and you’ve got to decide how you want history to remember you.” Throughout, Johnson’s masterful manipulation of lawmakers to get the legislation he needs to win the next election is weighed against his increasingly genuine investment in basic human compassion. “Just a little respect and love – is that too much to ask for?” he asks hoarsely, removing his glasses to wipe his eyes when the going gets particularly rough. “Fuck.”
At the conclusion of this long, rewarding night at the theater, “Happy Days Are Here Again” blares as men in straw hats celebrate the president’s re-election. Cranston’s well-traveled profile is projected in duplicate on the screens overhead, accompanied by the stars and stripes of the flag and the words “Let Us Continue.” Yes – let’s.