You Scratch My Back

Ah, American politics. A government so dysfunctional that a single issue can cause a shutdown and an ideological war. Was it always thus? Judging by some of our most talented playwrights, the answer is a bitter, but not fully disillusioned “yes.”

Take for instance Pulitzer-winner Robert Schenkkan’s drama All the Way, which runs through June 29 at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre. Southern politicians are the obstacle in All the Way, where president Lyndon Johnson yearns to pass a civil-rights bill only to see it frozen in committee even as it causes a rift in the Democratic party.

That Johnson gets the Civil Rights Act passed remains a feather in the cap of a president too often remembered for Vietnam. And Schenkkan, who penned the American-history-at-gunpoint epic, The Kentucky Cycle, only hints at LBJ’s troubles. In fact, All the Way, with its three-hour running time and galvanic performance by Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), feels like two-thirds of a three-act tragedy. We see the heroic, but albeit flawed, commander in chief resorting to charm, pressure and bullying to get what he wants. We also see his growing paranoia, as when he promises Senator Humphrey (Robert Petkoff) the vice presidency, but then pulls out that rug at any sign of weakness.

Cranston, with more energy than 10 political conventions, is a wonder. It is literally thrilling to see him ramp-up from dumbfounded shellshock following JFK’s death to being dressed by his aides while fielding phone calls from Martin Luther King (a fine Brandon J. Dirden), Lady Bird (Betsy Aidem) and Senator Richard Russell (John McMartin). Schenkkan makes it clear that this LBJ has good motivations but that they are quickly subverted by the needs of the moment. He’ll say or do whatever he has to, and then punish himself later.

By the time Johnson gets dispatches about questionable activity in the Gulf of Tonkin, we already know his stubbornness and insecurity will tarnish a legacy that could have been defined by his legislations on gun control, voting, housing and Social Security. It’s a shadow that stretches far, but not all the way.

Stage and Screen
For better and worse, Broadway relies on big-name actors to ensure that multi-million-dollar vehicles have a fan base. This season, Broadway enjoyed a bumper crop of screen stars from Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz doing Pinter to Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart tackling Beckett.

Even as we move to summer, audiences can still catch luminaries lighting up Broadway stages. Denzel Washington continues his acclaimed turn in A Raisin in the Sun through June 15, while Tony Shalhoub of Monk plays George S. Kaufman in Act One through the same date. Also appearing in June are Tyne Daly as an unforgiving mom in Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons, Zach Braff in Bullets Over Broadway and Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan. James Franco will also pair with Chris O’Dowd in Of Mice and Men.

photo: evgenia eliseeva