“Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” The oft-quoted remark about laws and sausages does not prove true in the new limited-release play “All the Way.” Watching legislation be made has never been more enjoyable.
Starring “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon Johnson, the play chronicles the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the presidential election of that year. The play, written by Robert Schenkkan, focuses on the various groups and political leaders that Johnson had to corral and coerce in order to pass the landmark anti-discrimination bill and win a landslide election victory. Often this is accomplished through telephone calls and face-to-face meetings of politicians and other leaders. This allows for great scenes where Johnson telephones a variety of people, switching political tactics and demeanor as the call recipient changes between FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Senator Richard Russell, and Reverend Martin Luther King. Throughout all the political maneuvering, we see President Johnson’s mood swing wildly, directly correlated to his political fortune. Strangely enough, the tone of the play, while it has its somber moments, is of a humors feel good story. At the end of all this political machinations, Johnson asks if the audience feels squeamish, but I doubt the modern audience felt anything of the sort. In our era, any group of modern politicians able to compromise and hammer out a successful and important bill is an uplifting and inspiring story.
This is a fascinating plot, allowing for a scrutinizing look at many of our nation’s most cherished ideals and institutions. However, much of the audience would still attend the play if the plot concerned the Department of Transportation promulgating rules on traffic cones as long as it still billed Mr. Cranston. Those wishing to see the play simply on its star actor’s celebrity will not be disappointed. Mr. Cranston delivers an amazing performance, nailing both Johnson’s Texas Twang and the infamous “Johnson Treatment” of cajoling targets by any emotional means necessary. Cranston fluidly and believably switches from humorous anecdotes to furious profanity laden rants, and then back to friendly country stories within minutes. It is a testament to the actor’s skill that during the play you forget all about the television actor’s former role as Walter White and only see the 36th president on the stage.
However, Mr. Cranston is not the only actor who excels. The entire supporting cast does a great job of breathing life into their larger-than-life historical characters. Of particular note is Brandon Dirden who plays Martin Luther King Jr. Dirden has the hardest job of any of the play’s actors, portraying a man long ago beautified by American history. The combined efforts of the Schenkkan’s script and Dirden’s acting bring King back to earth. We see King bartering with Johnson, using his sway over African American voters as leverage, worrying about funding for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, cheating on his wife, and even swearing. Seeing King’s imperfections make him all the more impressive. Not only do we see King’s skills in the usually-portrayed areas of making speeches and being moral, we are reminded that the accomplishments of the civil rights era were made not by simple mythological figures, but by complicated men.
My main criticism of the play was the audience. I went to see the play on a Saturday night, and all around me people whispered. A couple even inexplicably left during the final monologue. I do not know if this had to do with an audience far more excited about Mr. Cranston than the rest of the play, or if our country’s decline into cultural anarchy has reached a new low. However, it is a good sign when the worst things about the play are occurring offstage.
Sometime during the play’s limited five-month engagement, I urge you to step away from your books for the evening to go see “All the Way.” The play is a chance to think about the reasons we are at law school, and to see many of the historic figures that occupy our textbooks come to life. And if that is not reason enough for you to see the play, then go for Mr. Cranston.
“All the Way” is playing at the Neil Simon Theatre. Student tickets for back row seats can be obtained on the play’s website and are around $40-45 when taking various fees into account.