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Letter from New England

Kevin Stevens writes from New England:

Late September in Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Yard abuzz with returning students, fall weather as perfect as a robin’s egg, the city’s political and cultural life in full swing after a groggy summer. At the Kennedy School of Government, Niall Ferguson argues that President Obama has been irreparably damaged by his lack of a Middle East strategy. At Fenway Park, the Red Sox are the best team in baseball, favoured to reach the World Series. And at nearby the American Repertory Theater, Bryan Cranston is playing Lyndon Baines Johnson in Robert Schenkkan’s play All the Way.

Lowbrow to highbrow, Cranston is everywhere this month. After five years of unparalleled television success, Breaking Bad is in the throes of its final episodes, and the world can’t get enough of Cranston’s nebbish-turned-gangster Walter White. In Hollywood, five films in post-production, including a remake of Godzilla, feature him in a starring role. And last week’s New Yorker devoted a full-length profile to the ubiquitous actor, calling him a “one-man truth squad” whose dedication to his craft allows him “to produce wracking sobs on cue” and “play anything, anytime, anywhere, any way”.

Cranston, the article tells us, has created a personal project assessment scale, which ranks story, script, role, director, and cast, assigning weighted values to each to help him determine which movie projects to select. Story and script count the most. How this scale, which does not include compensation, led him to choose Godzilla (not to mention Kung Fu Panda 3), we can only guess, but his busy film schedule has not prevented him from taking on the monumental challenge of playing LBJ on the stage. And in this play, LBJ is every Texan inch the giant figure he was in life. Very few actors could pull this off. Would Cranston?

I went to see All the Way a week into its run. The house was full, with extra seating set up in the aisles and an atmosphere bristling with anticipation. Schennkan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, and the cast is full of Broadway heavyweights, including Dakin Matthews and Michael McKean, but the audience was there to see Cranston. Mixed into the usual Cambridge crowd of salt-and-pepper academics and liberal professionals was a healthy number of younger patrons, some of them wearing T-shirts printed with Walter White’s image above the moniker “Heisenberg”, the character’s drug-lord alias in Breaking Bad. The usual pre-show speculation about how good the script might be and how the actors would perform was overshadowed by a larger question: could the experience withstand the hype that follows Cranston everywhere he goes?

With a dramatis personae that includes Johnson, Martin Luther King, J Edgar Hoover, George Wallace and Hubert Humphrey, and a timeframe of a year or so beginning with the death of JFK and extending through the passage of the Civil Rights Act, King’s Nobel Peace Prize, and Johnson’s re-election, All the Way has plenty of historical raw material to churn. It also has big themes: the acquisition and manipulation of power, the conflict between idealism and pragmatism, the pathology of American racism and the persistence of political hypocrisy.

For the most part, Schennkan, aided by his skilful integration of actual speeches, stories and telephone conversations, primarily from Johnson and King, handles these themes well. At times, the play (which runs for three hours) is overburdened by its historical detail. Like Spielberg’s Lincoln, it can get lost in the arcana of legislative procedure and domestic infighting. But by making Johnson’s complex personality the core of the drama, Schennkan gives focus and unity to a work that often lacks poetry. And by casting Cranston in the key role, the American Repertory Theater and director Bill Rauch have brought the execution of this play to a very powerful level.

Cranston’s LBJ is full-bodied and full-blooded. His voice is sonorous and rich, his timing flawless, his body language raucous yet subtle, like the president himself. Much shorter and lighter than Johnson, he nevertheless convincingly conveys the intimidating bulk of the man. The finest moments in the play are his splendid recreations of Johnson monologues, filled with bitter wisdom or the down-home, profane anecdotes he was famous for, often used to bully, wheedle, or railroad those whose support he needed to fulfil his vision.

And what a vision it was. LBJ sought to join the pantheon of untouchable American heroes whose statues enshrine the nation’s public places and whose visages grace the currency: Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Lincoln. His path to greatness was to be paved by a trio of legislative triumphs that he believed would fulfil America’s destiny as an enlightened democracy and which, given the raw realities of the age, only a liberal Southerner with massive political power could have pulled off: the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the War on Poverty. Johnson’s appetite and ambition would settle for nothing less.

As the play illustrates, he secured these revolutionary social programmes using muscle and guile, but the reputation he coveted slipped through his fingers. Johnson was less suited to the ether of heroism than the mud of political competition, and Cranston’s genius is the success with which he interprets Schennkan’s thesis: that LBJ’s manipulative behaviour in pursuit of worthy political goals undermined his judgement, making him vulnerable to the international short-sightedness that would allow him to make such horrendous decisions about US involvement in Vietnam – which was, of course, not only his downfall but the tragic end to the golden age of American exceptionalism, when the country’s self-perception, fuelled by massive prosperity and two decades of utter global dominance, was more distant than ever from the brutal realities of the exercise of power.

A lesson, perhaps, for a president who lacks a Middle East strategy. Or at least a vehicle for national self-examination. For in telling the story of Lyndon Johnson in 1964, All the Way also summarses the postwar American narrative – a tale of ideals and misperceptions on a crash course with historical necessity. Which, come to think of it, is not all that different from the arc of Breaking Bad. And Cranston? Well, you’d have to say he rose above the hype. He nailed the role. Had Lyndon been in the audience, he would have been squirming with recognition.
5/10/2013