* * *From: Amy Watts
To: Emily Sherwood, Randy Perry
Emily and I saw "All the Way" together back in early March. We had some good discussion of it afterwards, and now that you've seen it, too, let's talk about it, all three of us.
Today, "All the Way" received two Tony nominations - Best Play and Best Actor (Bryan Cranston, in lead role of Lyndon Baines Johnson). I'd argue that it didn't deserve the former and wholeheartedly deserved the latter.
Let me start with the good: Cranston's performance as LBJ was PHENOMENAL. And not to say that I didn't appreciate that during the play, but the moment that crystallized it for me: he gets the final words of the play, the lights go down, and when the lights came back up, there was Bryan Cranston. I hadn't realized how fully he had transformed into LBJ until I saw him come out of it. And, really, the only thing he'd changed costume/hair/makeup-wise at that point was removing the glasses.
The Bad: I had major quibbles with the play as a whole, though. I'll list some of my biggest concerns and y'all can decide where to start:
- The guy playing MLK was a black hole of charisma, which is the exact opposite of what you want in a portrayal of the man. He had the voice down, though, to his credit.
- The play either needed to spend more time or less time with the civil rights leaders. As it was, it felt like...
- The civil rights stuff was sometimes padding so that Cranston could catch his breath.
- The sexism of the day played for laughs with the contemporary audience
- The Sorkinesque sanctimony
- Not knowing where the story should end.
There, that's my gauntlet thrown down.
* * *From: Emily
To: Amy, Randy
Hi Amy and Randy,
I'll add my bits in through Amy's. Amy and I discussed the play right after, so our thoughts are similar in many instances.
Today, "All the Way" received two Tony nominations - Best Play and Best Actor (Bryan Cranston, in lead role of Lyndon Baines Johnson). I'd argue that it didn't deserve the former and wholeheartedly deserved the latter.I concur that Cranston was outstanding and the Tony nod was well deserved, but the play itself is in need of a good editor.
The Bad: I had major quibbles with the play as a whole, though. I'll list some of my biggest concerns and y'all can decide where to start:I'm going to tackle these two points together. To me, one of the big structural faults in the play is that it can't decide whether the MLK subplot is supposed to be a subplot or a parallel plot. If the former, the scenes should have been trimmed significantly. If the latter, they needed a stronger male co-lead. As Amy pointed out, Brandon J. Dirden had the speech patterns down, but lacked the charisma and presence needed to full embody MLK or to provide a true counterpoint to Cranston as LBJ. That leads me to surmise that the civil rights leader scenes were intended as a subplot, but the scenes often ran on without forwarding the plot or providing further insight and growth for the characters.
The guy playing MLK was a black hole of charisma, which is the exact opposite of what you want in a portrayal of the man. He had the voice down, though, to his credit.The play either needed to spend more time or less time with the civil rights leaders. As it was, it felt like…
The civil rights stuff was sometimes padding so that Cranston could catch his breath.True. And we shouldn't feel that way.
The sexism of the day played for laughs with the contemporary audienceFor a period piece, there is to be some expectation of this. On the other hand, it would have been a better play if they let us be uncomfortable with the sexism. Some contemporary audiences will still laugh at inappropriate times, but the playwright, director, and actors should trust us to recognize the complicated gender dynamics of the time period without needing to give us an out by playing it as humor. There were enough other humorous moments in the text to provide balance.
The Sorkinesque sanctimonyYes. This. You could add a Sorkinesque treatment of women, as well, but we already discussed that above.
Not knowing where the story should end.Beyond the flaws in casting and plot, this was my biggest issue with the play. Amy and I both drew comparisons with the movie "Lincoln," which should have ended with the camera viewing Lincoln as he walks down the hallway on his way to the theater. Likewise, this play should have ended with the passing of the Civil Rights legislation. Or LBJ securing the DNC nomination. But it didn't opt for either.
On to you, Randy!
* * *From: Randy
To: Emily, Amy
Before this gets too unwieldy, I'll stick to two points in this response. (There are a couple of other things I'll want to mention, but I'll get to those in the next round.) I will also preface these remarks by saying that, as a Canadian, I'm only familiar in the broadest sense with LBJ and his presidency. I'm much more interested in the play as drama than as history.
1. The casting of MLK. Like you, I found the performance lacking in charisma. I, perhaps generously, interpreted it as a conscious choice on the part of the actor, Brandon J. Dirden. We are all familiar with King's electric personality from his famous speeches, but most (all?) of King's scenes in "All The Way" were in small groups, behind closed doors. I thought it was a portrayal of the *private* King, rather than the public one, where you'd expect him to be far more subdued.
Related to this, I think the play wants us to treat the LBJ and MLK stories as parallels (rather than the MLK story as a subplot), and I'm absolutely fine with that structure, as it's presented in this production. And, generally, I'm fine with the length - I thought it was very well-paced, considering its three-hour length. Comparisons to the film "Lincoln" are valid, but I didn't feel like the ending of "All The Way" was obviously wrong, like the ending of "Lincoln" obviously was.
2. The "Sorkinesque sanctimony". Was there audience applause throughout the performance that you saw? At mine, there was not. If there had been (and if I felt like it was a case of the audience congratulating itself for being enlightened), I might have been less generous regarding the sanctimony. (It definitely FELT like there were spots in the play that would have allowed for audience applause; fortunately, the audience at last Saturday's matinee didn't take the bait.) It's a case where the right side is so obviously right, and the wrong side is so obviously wrong, that it's almost appalling to realize this all happened only 50 years ago.
There was one moment that stuck out for me, in a bad way: The scene between LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover after (I think his name was) Walter was arrested in the men's room. The nudge-wink nature of the dialogue ("You can usually tell when someone's a pervert", or whatever) took me out of the play for a couple of minutes.
Any production of a play is about the time in which it's produced as much as it's about the time in which it's set. A few times throughout "All The Way", characters mentioned that if LBJ got the civil rights bill passed, the Democrats would lose the south, probably for a long, long time. The play implicitly links the USA's current fractured political landscape to the passing of this bill. Which, I guess, is a nicer way of saying "Yup, the South is effed up."
And finally, you're absolutely right about Cranston. At the performance I saw, when the lights came up, his eyes were closed. When he opened them two seconds later, the fact that he was "Bryan Cranston" again took my breath away. Eddie Izzard and I chatted about this after the show. (BOOM: name-dropped!)