So many of the biggest Broadway shows sell America somewhere else – fantasies of talking African lions, witches in Oz, French revolutionaries or Northern English drag queens. Robert Schenkkan’s bold new political drama, together with the newly revived classic Raisin in the Sun, hints at a more introspective mood – both look at the America of 50 years ago, at a time of national self-examination and interrogation over civil rights. Bryan Cranston sits at the corrupt heart of this theatre of politics which is so compelling it’s hard to avoid drawing present-day parallels.
Schenkkan won the Pulitzer Prize for his Kentucky Cycle in 1991 – a sprawling work covering 200 years of history in six hours. He’s restricted himself to more Broadway-friendly brevity here, but his script still feels like a densely populated slice of an endless, teeming saga. His little piece of ivory is Lyndon B. Johnson’s first 11 months in the White House – the honeymoon period immediately after Kennedy’s death, which he used to push through huge civil rights reforms. And his LBJ is wildly, imaginatively crude. Cranston makes his Broadway debut, transforming from science teacher-turned-meth lord in Breaking Bad to another kind of mercurial anti-hero, simmering with mad physical ticks, colourful metaphors – a political obstacle is “the turd in the crystal punchbowl” – and political genius almost as heavily concealed as his deep-down integrity.
Around him director Bill Rauch swirls an endless cast of lackeys and lobbiers – and a constant succession of phonecalls and threats – with sufficient lightness to ensure his heavier subjects never become indigestible. LBJ’s weightiest tangles are with an increasingly mistrustful civil rights movement pushing him to act faster, harder, more decisively. Stokely Carmichael (William Jackson Harper) is young and angry, while Fannie Lou Hamer (Roslyn Ruff) speaks devastatingly of brutal police beatings inflicted on her as she tries to enforce voter rights. At the centre of this divided camp, Brandon J. Dirden's perfectly pitched performance captures Martin Luther King Jr.'s voice in all its tremulous musicality. Though he's more often silent at the centre of an argumentative hubbub, when made, his pronouncements are authoritative.
LBJ and MLK are locked head to head in a battle of wits that easily turns dirty, too. In a brilliantly realised, emotionally fraught meeting, King stiffly watches LBJ plop sugar cubes into his coffee, listening to his equally loaded, syrupy stories of picking cotton: then barely flinches as Johnson finally, jovially stabs at his weak spot – King’s womanising, all recorded on tape. But this production also conveys a sense that LBJ genuinely cares about equality. He talks movingly about his experience teaching Mexican immigrants first grade, and watching “the light in their eyes go out” as they grow up and their ambitions falter. And more then that, perhaps, he cares about bringing the rest of his party along with him.
This era was the one where the unthinking allegiance of the South and the Democrats was cracking along moral lines at odds with traditional loyalties, as the Republicans made a sharp swing towards moral conservatism. Christopher Acebo’s scenic design, overlaid with Shawn Sagady’s meticulously researched projections of archive images, bombards the audience with this fractured context – news footage and photos of protests, police brutality and political rallies in the tumultuous world outside LBJ’s office.
The New Yorker described this carefully-made production as “overlong, overcrowded and middlebrow” – and in a sense, the criticism sticks. But to elevate the lowbrow posturing of the era’s politicians and the broad brush strokes of mass lobbying into an artistically satisfying whole is a success in itself. Like LBJ, Robert Schenkkan grew up in Texas, and his parents knew the Johnsons. But the success of his play comes from leaving the South to infiltrate the cracks in LBJ’s political façade through projections and testimonies and protest. Battered, but never beaten, this sprawling panorama is still his play.