As soon as I heard Bryan Cranston say “It’s not personal, it’s just politics” in a TV commercial for “All the Way,” I knew I had to see the show.
I mean, come on.
Like good little nerds, my sister and I, with our friend Kate in tow, went to the show on Friday night and all gave it rave reviews.
Cranston plays LBJ in the first year of his presidency – the play opens with him on Air Force One, having just been sworn in following JFK’s assassination – as he works to pass the Civil Rights Act and run for election in 1964.
In my unprofessional opinion, this play was tremendous. It wasn’t necessarily the story itself that I loved, but the way the story was told. It followed different groups of people seeking different endgames through the same situations: LBJ trying to procure votes for the Civil Rights Act; Martin Luther King, Jr. working with fellow activists on a plan to ensure the Act included provisions they wanted; and long-tenured politicians fighting against its passage.
The play told the story of three disparate desires, but connected them in clear, logical ways. Sometimes, multiple stories shared the stage. It was often set up like a split-screen. You’d see MLK on one side, LBJ on the other. Each would have his moment to act out the scene, and then the next actor would begin telling his side of the story. It wasn’t rapid-fire or back-and-forth, but it helped me understand how the stories were intertwined. As the action shifted from one setting to another, often from a room in the White House to a hotel room MLK and his team were staying in, it sometimes seemed as though they shared a passing glance, as if to toss to the next guy and the next scene. They were acting separately, but aware of each other’s every move.
And then there was Bryan Cranston. I think he’s one of those actors you just know will be amazing, no matter the role. I’ve never seen Breaking Bad, which is what I think most people love him for. But whether he’s the CIA director in Argo or Ted Mosby’s boss in How I Met Your Mother, I think you can sense there’s something great about him.
He certainly was great in this. I don’t know exactly what LBJ was like, and maybe Cranston played a bit more of a caricature than he did real person, but he clearly wanted to represent the man himself onstage, with all his political genius and all his personal insecurities. The NYT did an interesting story on Cranston’s preparation for the role, which included a video of his trip to the Times‘ archives in search of information on the president. I also love the story’s pictures of Cranston and the cast in rehearsal. I never think about the stripped-down rehearsals a Broadway cast had to go through in order to get to the elaborate final production.
I also loved discovering that one of my obscure little obsessions had a connection to this play. John McMartin, who I later found out is a veteran stage actor with multiple Tony nominations, played a senator set on blocking passage of the Civil Rights Act. Before “All the Way,” I knew him as the editor of the foreign section in my beloved All the President’s Men. He delivers one of my favorite lines in the movie while expressing his skepticism over the paper’s aggressive Watergate coverage: “Where did the Washington Post suddenly get the monopoly on wisdom?” (A clip of this scene is nowhere to be found on the internet because I’m the only person who’d watch it. Just trust me. He delivers the line perfectly.) I love that McMartin is still going strong, and it was cool to see him on the stage.
I don’t think “All the Way” will be on Broadway much longer, though I’m sure it will run past the upcoming Tony awards. If you love Bryan Cranston, great acting, or American history, it will enthrall you.