Cranston for President

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.

A Night at the Theater: “Lucky Guy”

My sister was in town this weekend and we hatched last-minute plans to see a Broadway show Saturday evening. We failed in our attempts to get lottery tickets for Matilda or Book of Mormon, but were able to get standing room only tickets for Lucky Guya play written by Nora Ephron and starring Tom Hanks as New York City newspaper columnist and police reporter Mike McAlary, who, among other career highlights, won a Pulitzer in 1998 for his reporting on a Haitian immigrant who was assaulted by police in Brooklyn.

Of course, we wanted to see this play because Tom Hanks stars, but I also wanted to see it because it’s Nora Ephron’s last work. When I think of the ideal writer and the ideal New Yorker, I think of Nora Ephron. Plus, she wrote When Harry Met Sally…, a movie I adore.

lucky guyLucky Guy was phenomenal, and based on what I know of Nora Ephron – from several of her films, her book “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” and a handful of articles I read that were written shortly after her death – so much of her own life experience was infused into this story and its characters. It’s a true story, but in its presentation and dialogue, I saw elements of Ephron and another character she developed.

What captivated me most about McAlary’s story was how deeply he felt that he had been born to be a New York newspaper writer. Inside the Lucky Guy playbill was a kind of “bonus” playbill, a large cardstock addition that included an excerpt from Ephron’s book “I Remember Nothing,” titled “Journalism: A Love Story.”

An excerpt of the excerpt:

I’d known since I was a child that I was going to New York eventually, and that everything in between would be just an intermission. I’d spent all those years imagining what New York was going to be like. I thought it was going to be the most exciting, magical, fraught-with-possibility place that you could ever live; a place where if you really wanted something you might be able to get it; a place where I’d be surrounded by people I was dying to know; a place where I might be able to become the only thing worth being, a journalist.

And I’d turned out to be right.

When I read this in the program, worlds collided in my head. Nora Ephron felt this way. She wrote a whole play about a man who felt this way. And she developed a character of her own who felt this way: Sally Albright, Meg Ryan’s character in When Harry Met Sally….

An early scene in When Harry Met Sally… has the title characters driving out of Chicago, en route to New York City to start their lives after college graduation. They’ve just met – Harry’s girlfriend is a mutual friend – and Harry tries to make conversation. Sally’s response to “Why don’t you tell me the story of your life?” is infused with the same eager, optimistic, “I was born to be a journalist in New York City” spirit that Ephron and McAlary possessed.

The first 40ish seconds here are what I’m getting at:

I may not be a newspaper reporter, but I identify with that sense of feeling like you were born to be in New York, at least for a time. Sally Albright’s line, “Nothing’s happened to me yet. That’s why I’m going to New York,” is part of the reason I wanted to come here in the first place. And I couldn’t help loving Lucky Guy because that same sense of conviction drove Mike McAlary.

Knowing Ephron wrote the play while she was dying added another dimension to my understanding of the story. For most of the second act, McAlary knows he’s living with cancer. Ephron’s script shows how he copes with the pain of treatment. One scene I found especially powerful shows McAlary and one of his editors, who was also in the hospital for a major heart surgery, talking to each other as they figured out how to raise their morphine levels. As the dosage goes up, their pain dulls, their eyes widen, their mouths open, and they talk euphorically about how they’ve achieved their dreams in journalism. In that brief moment, death has no hold on them.

I read Ephron’s book “I Feel Bad About My Neck” a couple summers ago, and remember her talking a lot about dreading and preparing for death. I wondered if Ephron had written the play as a coping mechanism, or if she wrote some of her own fears about death into McAlary’s character. When I got home, I discovered a March New York Times magazine piece written by her son Jacob Bernstein: “…part of what she was trying to do by writing about someone else’s death was to understand her own,” he wrote. In a way, this play was therapy.

Those were just two elements of McAlary’s character that stood out to me, but there was so much more to love about Lucky Guy, from the cast to the dialogue to the set design that scrolled through headlines of McAlary’s columns. I also love how everyone clapped for Tom Hanks when he first came onstage. They’re clapping, of course, because he’s a talented and accomplished actor, but I always wonder if a little of the applause comes from a sense of wonder that this larger-than-life movie star is actually a real person, here in the flesh, with me tonight. Part of Broadway’s allure, I suppose.

I highly recommend Lucky Guy if you’re in NYC before it closes July 3. Standing room tickets were only $29 (but only go on sale if the show’s sold out), and I can’t even begin to tell you how much of a steal that was.

It Pays to Embrace the Moment

Nearly every time I’ve talked to my dad on the phone since I’ve been in New York, he’s told me one thing: “Embrace it.”

I am not great at savoring the moment. School and/or work tend to consume me. My thought process is, I don’t have time to have fun. I’ve got to get this assignment done, or start this project, or look over this paper.

But, since I get to spend ten weeks living in New York City, I must get better at embracing the moment. Ten weeks will be over before I know it and I’ve got to take advantage of every opportunity.

If I do say so myself, I did a pretty good job of embracing the moment this weekend. While I planned to go for a walk and read a book in Central Park, I abandoned that plan when I walked by Radio City Music Hall and decided to stand in the rain and watch celebrities enter the Tony Awards on the red carpet.

The show started at 8 pm, but by 4 pm there was already quite a crowd lined up across the street from Radio City, waiting for their chance to see the stars. Since it was pouring at this point, I abandoned my hopes of a nice walk, bought a pretzel (I may be enjoying myself, but I never said I was gourmet) and joined the citizen paparazzi.

I’m not going to say it was the greatest moment of my life, although it might have been if Tina Fey had been there, but it was pretty dang cool. I got to see Denzel Washington, Helen Mirren, Will Smith, Cate Blanchett, all the members of Green Day, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Christopher Walken, Angela Lansbury, Stanley Tucci and several others. (And it took some willpower to keep from yelling, “Yes, THE Bruce Dickinson!” when Christopher Walken passed us.)

Since my camera was going a bit crazy, it was easier for me to take video of those on the red carpet than it was for me to take still photos. For your enjoyment:

Hopefully, I’ll have more chances to change my plans and embrace the moment this summer. It probably won’t lead to me seeing a bunch of celebrities walk right by, but who knows?

Have you ever had a similar experience? Have you ever suddenly “embraced the moment” and have it pay off in ways that were really beneficial for you, or just really fun?