In 1963, Lyndon Baines Johnson (Bryan Cranston) became the first Southern President of the “You-nited States of Am’rica” in one hundred fourteen years—that is, since Virginia’s Zachary Taylor, our twelfth commander-in-chief, who held that position for a total of sixteen months before succumbing to a stomach illness. As written by Robert Schenkkan and played by Mr. Cranston, LBJ is a Southern boy through and through, a slick operator who speaks largely in metaphors about carpenters and rattlesnakes; spymaster J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean) is his “brother” and segregationist Richard Russell (John McMartin) is “Uncle Dick,” even when both consistently threaten to wreck his career. This LBJ loves fighting, fucking, and telling dirty jokes, and though we only see him doing the first and the last, we can imagine that he is wagging his tongue through all three. “The whole ‘soft on the military’ bullshit!” he cries after hearing that old Republican attack. “Christ, Democrats beat Hitler and Tojo, what more do we have to do?”
Mr. Schenkkan’s All the Way follows Johnson for his first year in office, from his accidental assumption of the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination until his landslide victory over Barry Goldwater, with a primary focus on his relationship to Martin Luther King (Brandon J. Dirden) and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Indeed, the play is a veritable Who’s Who of ‘sixties iconoclasm, from Hoover and King to George Wallace (Rob Campbell), Stokely Carmichael (William Jackson Harper), and Robert McNamara (James Eckhouse). Moving rapidly but never sacrificing clarity, All the Way is an impressive feat, a political drama that would be almost as interesting if all its characters were fictional; this is not the kind of biography that relies on telling us little-known facts about famous people, but instead shows us a cross-section of the Washington machine that is thoroughly riveting.
Mr. Cranston takes a gamble with his histrionic performance, but it pays off: his LBJ is simultaneously a moral giant, a sharp pragmatist, and an unsettling creep whose charisma is both so transparent and so powerful that we love him despite ourselves. He makes us yearn both for another president of his caliber and a system that would not favor people like him. And Mr. Dirden faces no less of a challenge, but his MLK does not fall prey to cheap impersonation; though we occasionally hear the tremor of that famous preacherly voice, he mostly plays King as an overworked and exhausted man trying to balance the radicals in his movement, the racists in office, and the president who, if he’s telling the truth, could be the best for African-Americans since Abraham Lincoln.
But All the Way never loses sight of the country as a whole while portraying its most visible leaders, taking an interest also in the men who attend to great men. In a comic moment, LBJ’s barber finds himself in a precarious position while wielding scissors only inches away from the throat of the most powerful man in the world; in a tragic one, a black shoe shiner kneels before Dick Russell and carries on his work as the Georgian politician plots to bury the civil rights bill.
And naturally, the future of Vietnam casts its retrospective shadow over all the action of this terrific play, and there is wonderful irony when LBJ booms, after pummeling Goldwater, “I’m fine, Bird. I’m great. Hell, I’m president!” Is there a better summation of the agony and the seductiveness of this nation’s highest office?