PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: All The Way — "Happy Birthday, Mister President"

By Harry Haun
07 Mar 2014

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Cranston's flashy, flamboyant portrayal of a masterful wheeler-dealer in his political playpen is earning him the fastest standing ovation of the season, and chances are excellent that it will earn him more than that by the end of this theatrical year. Not that Cranston has stormed a new medium just to bag new trophies.

"My greatest joy, professionally, is working — not doing something where I'm anticipating another reward down the road," he insisted. "The work is the reward. 'Breaking Bad' was an extraordinary experience, but all I knew was it was the best hour script I'd ever read, and I desperately wanted to be a part of it. Did I know it was going to be a hit? No. I don't know if anything is going to be a hit. It's not for me to determine that, anyway. I just focus on telling the best story I can. If it resonates with the audience — whether it's on stage or in films — then it does. If it doesn't, I've missed the mark."

There is some hard evidence that Cranston was doing quality work before "Breaking Bad" unlocked the dark depths of his talent. Vince Gilligan, who created the series, had worked with him ten years earlier on an episode for The "X-Files" called "Drive" (not to be confused with the Ryan Gosling feature film that Cranston was also in). In that installment, Cranston managed somehow to win sympathy playing an anti-Semite, and Gilligan thought that quality would ease the actor through the blacker deeds of Walter White as he evolved from Mr. Chips to Scarface. It also works wonders here for illuminating the numerous character contradictions of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

All The Way is comparatively a quickie, as Schenkken plays go, spending almost three hours covering the first 11 months of the Johnson Presidency. (His Pulitzer opus, The Kentucky Cycle, came in two parts, and each went on for almost three hours.) And, yes, there is a three-hour postscript to the LBJ saga: His only four-year term (1965-1968). Schenkken is getting all that into a new play called The Great Society, revising it with one hand while giving All The Way his main attention with his other.

For the time being, Cranston prefers to plead myopia. "There's a part of me that wants to keep that other play at bay," he admitted. "All The Way takes place from the day of the Kennedy assassination to the night of the Presidential election in 1964. The Great Society is the next four years, and, because it is the next four years, I haven't wanted to read it. I haven't wanted to put my mind into other parts."

Director Bill Rauch, who premiered All The Way at his Oregon Shakespeare Festival and brought it to Broadway, is now finally ready to address The Great Society. "We go into rehearsal May 27 and open July 27 with many of the original company members from the first production of All The Way," he said. "Robert has done an incredible job. It's a sadder play, of course, as the toll of Vietnam begins to kick in more and more, but it's also deep and has great moments of humor and passion."

Schenkkan was, for luck, wearing a tie tack that had been given to him two weeks ago by LBJ's younger daughter, Lucy Baines. "I've met Lucy several times," he said, "and she is coming to see the play in April, with a big crowd of LBJ supporters."

They won't be disappointed to find their man portrayed as the ultimate political animal, adept at finding the telltale flaws in his foes and applying just enough pressure to get what he wants or permanently silence them. "That's classic Johnson. The man was a master. Politics was all he knew. That's all he cared about, 24/7."