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Thursday, April 17, 2014

The President Who Knocked


I've spent the last couple of days on Long Island, helping my mother prepare to move out of her house and into an apartment. We're awash in paperwork, furniture, and closets full of stuff she has accumulated over the last 4+ decades.

We took some time away from it Tuesday night to go into Manhattan to see Bryan Cranston in his Broadway debut in "All The Way." When I first heard about the show, I thought it was a one-man performance piece, but there's a cast of 20, and they're all terrific.

Cranston plays Lyndon Johnson from shortly after he became president in November, 1963, until he was elected to his own full term in November, 1964. The centerpiece of that year was the Civil Rights Act, which Johnson cajoled through Congress. The political resistance came from within his own party, as the racist South (the so-called Dixiecrats like Dick Russell, Strom Thurmond, and Robert Byrd) lined up against him on one side while civil rights leaders (like Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, and Stokely Carmichael) tugged from the other.

The actors portraying those men, as well as the women who play LadyBird Johnson and others, plus Michael McKean as J. Edgar Hoover, all gave solid performances, but it is Cranston's energy that drives the show. He's on stage for virtually the entire three hours, and his LBJ is in constant motion, even when sitting down. It's a powerful, densely verbose performance that must leave him drained nightly.

There were a couple of times where I thought I heard echoes of Walter White, another Cranston character who didn't suffer fools gladly and used his wits to stay one step ahead of his opponents. Many in the audience were no doubt drawn to "All The Way" because they knew Cranston's talents from his years on "Breaking Bad" -- and wanted to see him play LBJ as The President Who Knocks. Whether it's his celebrity or the 50th anniversary of the civil rights act that's putting them in the seats, they end up with a helluva history lesson.

When we got to the theater, I noticed several men standing around dressed in suits, wearing wired earpieces and eyeing the crowd as if they were Secret Service agents. A nice touch by the producers, I thought, considering the play is about a man who became president after the assassination of another. A few minutes later, I realized they weren't pretending to be Secret Service guys -- they were the real thing -- when I spotted Attorney General Eric Holder, who used to head the civil rights division at the Justice Department, taking his seat several rows in front of us. I knew about the retinue of agents who traveled with my brother during his stint as Interim Secretary Of Labor, and these guys looked cut from the same cloth.

I learned later (through McKean's Twitter feed) that we had two other famous audience members in our midst -- NYPD top cop Ray Kelly and impressionist Rich Little. Although the latter no doubt imitated LBJ back in the day, he could not have done so nearly as forcefully as Cranston.