Monday, October 14, 2013

Politico: Robert Schenkkan's All the Way

With the U.S. government in shutdown and voting rights in peril in a number of red states, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic about All The Way, Robert Schenkkan’s chronicle of the year between Jack Kennedy’s assassination and the 1964 re-election of LBJ, which just wrapped up a sold-out run at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA. (The title is, of course, derived from his campaign slogan, “All the way with LBJ.”) The political landscape covered by the play’s three hours is thorny: as the curtain falls, many of the architects of the Civil Rights movement feel betrayed by the president, who has overseen the passage of the Civil Rights Act but has had to excise the section on voting rights, and who failed to support the seating of the Mississippi Freedom Democrats with full voting privileges at the Democratic Convention. J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean) has ramped up his campaign to discredit Martin Luther King (Brandon J. Dirden), who has just won the Nobel Peace Prize, ferrying tapes of his motel-room adulteries to his wife Coretta (Crystal A. Dickinson). And LBJ has turned his back on his aide, Walter Jenkins (Christopher Liam Moore), after Jenkins was arrested, drunk, for solicitation in the men’s room of the Washington YMCA during the celebratory aftermath of the election. The play is about the political costs of social gains, about the balancing act of power, careerism and social change, and its subject is the last great old-style political animal to occupy the White House. But I don’t imagine there was anyone sitting in the house at Wednesday’s matinee who wouldn't opt for the world of Schenkkan’s play, where social progress is held dear, over the one we walked back into at the end of the afternoon.

Its built-in appeal to a contemporary liberal audience doesn’t make All the Way a good play, however – and that includes the rabble-rousing scene where David Dennis of CORE (Eric Lenox Abrams) yells up and down the aisles, demanding to know if the treatment of blacks in Mississippi can be called fair and just. At the matinee, audience members yelled back in support, though the show had, in my estimation, hit a low point: a playwright and director – Bill Rauch – who rev up a crowd so they can feel virtuous for being on the right side of a half-century-old political issue are merely indulging in a theatrical form of ass-kissing.

Nor does the presence of Bryan Cranston, the three-time Emmy Award-winning star of Breaking Bad in the enormous, flamboyant role of Lyndon Johnson make it a good play, though it was Cranston who guaranteed its box-office success and I have no doubt he will do the same when it moves to Broadway in the spring. I wasn't a fan of the TV series – I found the pilot episode so resolutely fake from the opening scene that I never tuned back in – so I didn't come to All the Way with the same expectation of thespian greatness that most of my fellow theatregoers did. Cranston certainly fills the space; he has clever timing; and it’s fun to watch him engage in back-room electioneering from the Oval Office or his bedroom, bribing and blackmailing the people from whom he requires political favors so that he can get the Civil Rights Bill out of committee and into law, squeezing and compromising to make it past the November finish line. He gives an entertaining performance, but he doesn't bring much personality of his own to the part, nor does he find much that’s fresh in the character. Randy Quaid provided a more vibrant portrait of Johnson in the 1987 TV movie LBJ: The Early Years (where Patti LuPone played Lady Bird), and in his brief appearance in the same role in The Butler, Liev Schreiber was more original.

Still, Cranston at least has a character to play. Most of the sixteen other actors, covering forty-four roles among them, don’t fare as well. Schenkkan knows how to underscore a significant historical figure but his writing tends to be gabby rather than dramatic and it often strands the actors. Dan Butler, late of Frasier, has one of the few well-sketched characters, Alabama’s Governor George Wallace, Johnson’s ill-fated competitor for the Democratic candidacy; Wallace was such a colorful figure that you can’t imagine any playwright flubbing it, and Butler lives up to his role. Schenkkan does something with LBJ’s running mate Hubert Humphrey, who – in the play’s most compelling scenes – is sent to negotiate with the Mississippi Freedom Party; it would be easy to depict Humphrey as a decent non-entity, but Schenkkan clearly finds his position fascinating, and he does more with him than one would imagine. (In this part, Reed Birney, who also plays Strom Thurmond, contributes the production’s most thoughtful performance.) On the other hand, the role of Martin Luther King, who has more stage time than anyone except Johnson, isn’t shaped very well, and for the first act Dirden seems both too youthful and not dynamic enough to embody this icon; I kept wondering why J. Bernard Calloway, so charismatic as Delray in the musical Memphis on Broadway, hadn’t been cast as King rather than as SCLC’s more moderate bigwig Ralph Abernathy. The casting choice becomes clear in act two, when Dirden gets to deliver a couple of classic King speeches, but the character never quite comes together, and I don’t think that’s Dirden’s fault.

Brandon J. Dirden as King
Crystal A. Dickinson, who was so witty in Clybourne Park, has the advantage of Fannie Lou Hamer’s mesmerizing testimony about her treatment in jail by her white captors, which she reads movingly, and that old pro Dakin Matthews goes well beyond the page in the creation of Senator Dick Russell, the Dixiecrat who opposes his buddy Lyndon on the Civil Rights Bill. The other actors don’t make much of an impression, including Michael McKean, whose quirky personality is buried in the tepid part of Hoover. Christopher Liam Moore is touching in his final scene as Walter Jenkins, when Lady Bird (Betsy Aidem) visits him in the psych ward to which her husband has confined him, but until his arrest outs him, he barely functions as a character at all.

It’s possible that Christopher Acebo gave Rauch exactly the set he wanted, but it’s a disaster. The playing area is reduced pretty much to center stage and downstage center while around it arcs stadium seating meant to evoke Congress or the Senate or a courtroom, where actors are always hanging out watching the proceedings. (Shawn Sagady’s projections on a cyclorama upstage suggest the many individual settings – the Oval Office, a motel room, and so on.) Rauch has so little space to work with that the scenes almost always look static. Occasionally he gets some of the actors into the house; the scene where the Freedom Riders Schwerner, Cheney and Goodman are accosted by the cops who will end up killing and burying them is effectively staged in the shadows, with flashing red lights (the lighting is by Jane Cox); and Rauch uses the trap on the Loeb Theater stage to show us Cheney’s body being unearthed. But those are the rare instances of moments when the direction is visually interesting. The play would be far better served by a more simplified set and unit furniture – and certainly it would look handsomer without projections, which almost always make a production look jerry-built.

Schenkkan is working with rich material in All the Way and it’s easy to confuse a good narrative with good theatre. But they aren’t the same thing. The play isn’t unengaging, but it lacks dramatic structure and character structure, too. It’s a flashy, loosely arranged historical drama galvanized by a showmanlike star that will, I think, impress a lot of people but look scruffy in a few decades, like Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope. But that play made a star out of James Earl Jones, and he was astonishing; more than forty years later I can still call to mind some of his scenes. (The movie version, unhappily, didn’t preserve the glory of his stage performance.) Bryan Cranston’s LBJ will certainly make his fans happy, but what he generates in the role is borrowed heat.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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