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March 7, 2014

Just the facts, ma'am (and plenty of them)

In today's Wall Street Journal I review two new plays, Robert Schenkkan's All the Way (in which Bryan Cranston plays Lyndon Johnson) and Sarah Ruhl's Stage Kiss. Here's an excerpt.

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Robert Schenkkan's "All the Way" is not LBJ's first stage appearance, but it's the first time that he's made it all the way to Broadway, and the presence of Bryan Cranston in the cast is the sole reason for his arrival there. New plays don't reach Broadway nowadays without a movie or TV star, and Mr. Cranston, lately of "Breaking Bad," is (at least for the moment) the latter. Far more important, he's also a totally assured stage performer who plays Johnson as a gangly, lapel-snatching wheedler in whom self-pity and rage are twisted together too tightly to rip apart. Yes, it's a caricature, and a garish one at that, but Mr. Cranston makes you believe in what you're seeing and hearing.

CRANSTON.jpegNot so his hard-working colleagues, most of whom struggle with Mr. Schenkkan's overstuffed pageant-style recounting of how Johnson got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, in which historical events whiz by like floats passing in review and LBJ is the only character who seems at all lifelike. Everybody else talks as if he's onstage, and every speech is so freighted with factual exposition that it's impossible for the supporting players to take wing...

Sarah Ruhl is the stickiest of sentimentalists, but nobody has to tell her that it isn't hip, so she caps her carious sweet tooth with a thick coat of Irony Lite. Result: box-office success. Witness "Stage Kiss," a two-hour exercise in theatrical inside baseball ("I just got the sides because my agent blah blah blah") whose principal characters, identified in the program as "She" (Jessica Hecht) and "He" (Dominic Fumusa), are a pair of actors who used to be a couple, parted on bad terms and are now appearing together in a play that requires them to share a big, juicy kiss. Oh, yes, "She" has since acquired a husband (Daniel Jenkins) and a daughter (Clea Alsip). Making due allowance for the usual postmodern pseudo-twists, everything that happens thereafter is horrifically predictable...

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Read the whole thing here.

A TV commercial for All the Way:

President Johnson talks to Sen. Richard Russell by phone on Nov. 28, 1963, six days after the assassination of John Kennedy. This call was secretly recorded by Johnson:

Posted March 7, 2014 10:00 AM

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