Has there been a U.S. President as folksy, foulmouthed, and insecure as Lyndon B. Johnson? Or one who could bluster, cajole, and strong-arm his rivals as effectively? Fresh from playing the similarly deceptive Walter White on Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston tears into the almost Shakespearean role in Robert Schenkkan's impressive (and probably Broadway-bound) historical pageant All the Way, currently playing through Oct. 12 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.
With a cinematic sweep and an eye toward teasing out parallels to our current political gridlock, Schenkkan artfully traces the first year of LBJ's presidency by crosscutting between Johnson and his inner circle, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (a slightly miscast Michael McKean), Martin Luther King Jr. (Brandon J. Dirden, who has the orator's cadences down), congressional leaders on both sides of the civil rights issue, and challengers in the 1964 presidential campaign. The effect is of a particularly ambitious film or TV project that, thanks to Bill Rauch's smooth direction, still finds purely theatrical ways to tell its story. To juxtapose the deaths of Freedom Riders in Mississippi with military escalation in Vietnam, for instance, Rauch creates a striking tableau as LBJ's Oval Office desk sinks into the stage to create a sunken grave out of which workers lift a body bag to punctuate both stories.
Much of the 17-member cast take on multiple roles, often bearing witness to the action from wood-panelled legislative chambers that surround the center stage (the set design is by Christopher Acebo). Standouts include William Jackson Harper as strident firebrand Stokely Carmichael, Dakin Matthews as Georgia Democrat and sometime LBJ ally Richard Russell, and Reed Birney as self-effacing Hubert Humphrey.
All the Way is never dull, but the three-hour play is seriously overstuffed. There are extraneous subplots (many involving George Wallace's flirtations with the Republicans), occasional anachronisms (would civil rights leader Bob Moses really say ''Serious as cancer''?), and seriously underwritten female roles. The scenes with Coretta Scott King (Crystal A. Dickinson) and Lady Bird Johnson (Betsy Aidem) are so perfunctory that they often flirt with cliché. (''People think I don't know about his, his lady friends,'' the latter says at one point. ''It never bothered me. I'm his wife. I'm the one he chose.'')
Schenkkan is no stranger to historical plays, or to sprawling theatrical epics. His 1992 Pulitzer winner The Kentucky Cycle was a two-part six-hour saga that followed three families in eastern Kentucky and spanned two centuries. He has a narrower timeframe in All the Way, though a comparably large cast. While he admirably compresses a lot of plot into a surprisingly fast-paced narrative, one wishes he'd take more cues from Shakespeare's history plays, pausing occasionally from his fixation on the political process to convey a fuller sense of the major players. Is it too much to ask for a soliloquy or two? Or at least a more thorough exploration of Johnson's motivation for taking up the the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that his predecessor, JFK, had let languish? Why would a Texas Democrat who occasionally dropped the N-word risk his career on the bill, and deploy every political trick he could muster to insure its passage? The civil rights leaders on stage debate just how much they can trust Johnson, but we never hear a satisfactory answer from LBJ himself. (Perhaps there could be a scene when Lady Bird presses him on the point.)
As good as Cranston is as Johnson, and he is very good indeed, the Emmy-winning actor could benefit from more time to hone his portrait. His Texas accent can be inconsistent, and his attempts to mimic Johnson's famous physicality (getting a little too close to conversation partners, grabbing Humphrey by the tie) occasionally cross over into antic movement. But he has already mastered the trickier aspects of LBJ's character: He conveys the late president's intelligence, his folksy gift of gab, his delight at dirty jokes and naughty words, and his almost innate sense of how to exploit his opponent's weaknesses to achieve his own goals. He is well on his way to creating another memorable, inscrutable all-American antihero. B+