After five years of Breaking Bad, actor Bryan Cranston is going All the Way to playing LBJ. All the Way by Robert Schenkkan opened to glowing reviews on Thursday night at the Neil Simon Theatre in New York City. This play is the actor’s Broadway debut and it was met by Tony buzz right out of the gate. The LBJ in question is President Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, and All the Way focuses on the first year of LBJ’s presidency in the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the 1964 presidential campaign. Additionally, it concentrates on Johnson’s efforts and machinations employed to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
All the Way serves as the first of two installments on the former president. The second play The Great Society will be introduced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this summer. Both plays are the work of playwright Robert Schenkkan. The three run time is greatly mitigated by the boisterous, sly, and convincing cast performances lead by the former Breaking Bad star. The play includes the presence of many well-known figures from the time period, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Alabama Governor George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover, Minnesota Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, civil-rights activist Stokely Carmichael, First Lady Bird Johnson, and LBJ’s chief rival, Senator Richard Russell from Georgia.
Cranston’s transition of going from five years of Breaking Bad to All the Way playing LBJ could be considered seamless in some ways. Both characters were master manipulators who used smoke and mirrors and intimidation techniques to achieve their goals. Cranston’s portrayal of both characters is nuanced, enthusiast, and expressive. The actor tends to use great physicality and manipulation in his roles via different methods. During Breaking Bad, Cranston’s Walter White was more prone to manipulation through use of mind games and physical distance. While the actor’s creation of LBJ is much more physically imposing and manipulative, as he uses close distances, severe facial expressions, and physical intimidation to make his point known. The actor was found of using facial expressions in both portrayals, but the amount of physicality demonstrated in All the Way would be considered opposite end of the spectrum from Breaking Bad.
The play centers on Johnson’s machinations and political tactics employed in the first year of his presidency that resulted in the adaptation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and his subsequent landslide, Democratic victory in the 1964 presidential election. LBJ faced mounting pressures from the Southern faction of the Democratic Party versus the compassionate pleas from civil-rights leaders such as Dr. King. This conflict created a great dilemma for the sympathetic, newly appointed leader, who was still dealing with the grief of a devastated nation in the wake of JFK’s assassination. The embattled leader uses the audience as his outlet and sounding board.
Cranston has come a long way in a short time from Breaking Bad to playing LBJ in All the Way. The actor gives the audience a glimpse of what that tumultuous time represented and how Johnson manipulated the people and circumstances around him to his own interests. The audience discovers that all the various ploys, enticements, and machinations Johnson executed were part of a grand plan to get his signature legislation passed and ensure his place in the White House for the upcoming term. In those pursuits, the audience sees that both Johnson and Cranston were very successful.
By Leigh Haugh