Michael McKean, Bryan Cranston, and Brandon J. Dirden in All the Way
Playing Lyndon B. Johnson in Robert Schenkkan’s ambitious historical drama All the Way, Bryan Cranston commands the stage in the same manner that LBJ commanded politics. Making his Broadway debut, the Emmy-winning star of Breaking Bad delivers a powerful, canny performance that constantly mesmerizes, even if the nearly three-hour drama he inhabits at times suffers from a wearisome overload of incidents and information.
Set in 1963-1964 from Johnson’s ascent to the Presidency after the JFK assassination to his triumphant election the following November, the play largely concentrates on his determined efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act despite the fervent opposition of Southern congressmen and his battle to win the presidency in his own right. It vividly depicts the nuts-and-bolts of LBJ’s strong-arm manipulations in great detail, with its large cast of characters including such figures as his wife Lady Bird (Betsy Aidem); Hubert Humphrey (Robert Petkoff), who would later become his Vice-President; the veteran Southern senator Richard Russell (John McMartin), one of his closest colleagues; his arch-rival, Governor George Wallace (Rob Campbell); FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean) and such civil rights leaders as Martin Luther King, Jr. (Brandon J. Dirden), Ralph Abernathy (J. Bernard Calloway) and Stokely Carmichael (William Jackson), among many others.
The playwright, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his The Kentucky Cycle, is no stranger to large-scale historical drama, and he conveys the complicated tale with assured skill. The characterizations and sharply written dialogue ring true, and the complex political maneuverings are rendered with an uncommon clarity, abetted by Shawn Sagady’s projections featuring archival film footage and helpful identifications of many of the supporting characters.
But despite its admirable ambitions the play never quite manages to be sufficiently compelling, lacking the theatrical power to elevate it above the level of an informative history lesson. That it works to the extent that it does is largely due to Cranston’s compelling performance. The actor, looking uncannily like Johnson with the aid of unobtrusive prosthetics and affecting a convincing Texan accent, superbly depicts the master politician’s wily intelligence and blustering personality as well as the tragic personality flaws that would ultimately undermine his presidency.
Under Bill Rauch’s cohesive direction, the large ensemble, many of them playing multiple roles, delivers mostly fine support, with the exceptions being Dirden, who fails to convey King’s charismatic magnetism, and McKean, miscast as the menacing Hoover.
It’s not surprising that this large-scaled play with its massive cast would be presented in the Neil Simon Theatre, normally a musical house. But commercial considerations aside, it would be far more effective in a more intimate venue. Christopher Acebo’s stark set, composed largely of semi-circular wooden benches, fails to impress, and such theatrical touches as having confetti rain down on the audience in celebration of Johnson’s electoral victory seem pro forma.
But for all its flaws, All the Way is to be commended for its intelligence and ambition. Such serious dramas, especially those with large casts, are a rarity on Broadway these days. Credit must no doubt go to Cranston’s star power, and the talented actor doesn’t disappoint. His bravura performance, sure to be recognized come awards time, registers as a highlight of the theater season thus far.
Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St. 800-745-3000. www.Ticketmaster.com. Through June 24.
Frances Jue and Cole Horibe in Kung Fu
The title of David Henry Hwang’s bio-play about Bruce Lee is ironic in a way that the screen icon would surely have appreciated. It refers not only to the martial arts style for which he was renowned, but also the classic television series he developed as a starring vehicle for himself, only to see a white actor, David Carradine, given the lead role.
Sadly, its title is the most resonant aspect of this stylized effort from the playwright whose previous works include the award-winning M. Butterfly, Golden Child, The Dance and the Railroad and the recent Chinglish. Starring So You Think You Can Dance contestant Cole Horibe in the starring role, this Signature Theatre Company production presents a sketchy, dramatically thin portrait of Lee’s life from his early days in Hong Kong to his eventual return to his birthplace and ascent into screen superstardom after a frustrating sojourn in Hollywood.
The play’s principal theme is Lee’s strained relationship with his domineering father (Frances Jue), whose constant disapproval supposedly led to his intense drive and perfectionism. While it may indeed be true, it’s handled with a Psychology 101 heavy-handedness that fails to sustain interest.
Hwang dutifully touches the biographical bases, including Lee’s relationship with his American wife Linda (Phoebe Strole) and young son Brandon (Bradley Fong); his difficulties getting cast in Hollywood because of his thick accent and the industry’s inherent racism; his martial arts tutoring of such stars as Steve McQueen and James Coburn (Clifton Duncan); and his frustration with his subservient role as Kato in the short-lived television series The Green Hornet. The play ends when he bitterly returns to Hong Kong, a decision that would prove highly fortuitous to his career.
Lee was a fascinatingly complex and charismatic figure, but little of that is apparent here due to the thinness of the writing and the uncharismatic performance by Horibe in his first dramatic role. While the performer certainly possesses the necessary lithe physique and athletic grace, he conveys little of the star’s fierce intensity that galvanized worldwide audiences.
The most striking moments of Leigh Silverman’s fast-paced production are the extensive, beautifully choreographed fight sequences staged by Emmanuel Brown. They manage to be both highly convincing and visually exciting while managing the neat trick of not doing physical harm to the actors. Less felicitous are the numerous dance sequences choreographed by Sonya Tayeh, including an interpretive dance performed to the propulsive Green Hornet theme music and a climactic Chinese-style ballet accompanied by an electronic score. They seem mere filler, tacked on to extend the play’s brief, two hour running time. The non-traditional casting choices are also jarring, including having an African-American actor as Coburn and an Asian-American as TV producer William Dozier.
But the chief problem is the play itself. The flashback sequences depicting Lee’s contentious relationship with his father prove repetitive, and such scenes as when Lee lies immobile on the floor after an injury go on far too long while having little dramatic impact.
Ultimately it all comes across as a misfire, a particularly disappointing one considering the richness of the subject matter and Hwang’s proven ability to explore his themes with greater depth. Kung Fu gives the superficial appearance of making all the right moves, but it fails to land any true body blows.
Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. 212-244-7529. www.signaturetheatre.org. Through March 16.
Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale in The Bridges of MadisonCounty
Is it too much to ask of a show called The Bridges of Madison County that we actually see one of the covered bridges that provide its title?
Sure, Michael Yeargan’s set design dutifully represents one of the archetypal structures with a series of arches. But much like this simultaneously intimate and overblown musical adapted from Robert James Waller’s gazillion-selling 1992 novel, it feels woefully inadequate.
Millions of people, probably most of them middle-aged women, swooned to the literary source material which was also made into a 1995 film directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, with Meryl Streep in the role of Francesca, the Italian war bride who has long settled into a boring marriage with an Iowa farmer.
This musical version featuring a score by Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years, Parade) and book by Marsha Norman (‘night Mother, The Color Purple) is no doubt aiming for a similar demographic. But from the plaintive sound of a cello in its opening moments to its ghostly reunion between the ill-fated lovers at the end, it strikes nary an unpredictable note.
The show directed by Bartlett Sher, first seen at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, concerns the fateful meeting between Francesca (Kelli O’Hara), married for eighteen years to the inattentive Bud (Hunter Foster), and Robert Kinkaid (Stephen Pasquale), a ruggedly handsome National Geographic photographer who has arrived in the flatlands of Iowa to photograph its celebrated covered bridges. One day Robert literally shows up on her doorstep, with Francesca, whose husband and two children have left for several days to attend a state fair, eagerly welcoming him in.
It doesn’t take long for Francesca and Robert, fueled by a bottle of brandy and some tender slow-dancing to the radio, to embark on a torrid affair that reawakens passionate nature that has been smothered by years of household drudgery. Lying to her husband Bud (Hunter Foster) and evading the suspicions of her busybody and rather jealous neighbor Marge (Cass Morgan), Francesca begins to seriously contemplate Robert’s offer to run away with him and share his wanderlust.
The schematic storyline was given great resonance in Eastwood’s subtle film adaptation. But there’s little subtlety in this show which hammers home its romantic themes in oppressive fashion. Brown’s score which aspires to operatic heights with its assemblage of soaring aria-like ballads is lush and melodic. But it eventually wears you down with its overly heightened emotionalism that is only partially alleviated by a country-flavored numbers.
Norman strains the simple storyline with a surfeit of extraneous characters and situations, including subplots involving the relationship between Marge and her common-sense spouting husband Charlie (Michael X. Martin) and endless segues to Francesca’s family at the state fair and the sibling rivalry between her daughter Carolyn (Caitlin Kinnunen) and son Michael (Derek Klena). Most egregiously, the main action is followed by a lengthy melodramatic coda filling us in on the two principal characters’ lives after their four day encounter. What might have made for an affecting 90-minute chamber musical is here stretched out to a numbingly bloated two hours and forty minutes.
Sher’s staging is also overly fussy, with scenery constantly being wheeled back and forth and the minor characters observing the action as if they were audience members who were mistakenly assigned onstage seats.
O’Hara (affecting a reasonably convincing Italian accent) and Pasquale make for an attractive couple, and their chemistry—they also co-starred in the off-Broadway musical Far From Heaven—is palpable. Both deliver strong, affecting performances that are enhanced by their superb vocalizing of the demanding score, including a second act ballad, “One Second and a Million Miles,” which justifiably stops the show. Strong contributions are also made by Foster, who provides unexpected shadings to his potentially stereotypical role, and Morgan, very amusing as the overly curious neighbor.
But for all its blatant attempts to tug at the heartstrings, The Bridges of Madison Country remains curiously unmoving. It’s as if its creators assumed that the source material was so potent in its melodramatic themes that all they had to do was accentuate them. But sometimes less is more.
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St. 212-239-6200. www.Telecharge.com.
A scene from Love and Information
Caryl Churchill’s new play Love and Information features more than a hundred characters in some fifty short scenes ranging in length from a few seconds to several minutes, presented in rapid-fire succession. Here’s a quick summary of every single one of them:
Just kidding…that exercise would constitute a sheer overload of information. That’s perhaps the point of this typically audacious effort from the experimental playwright who’s given us such noteworthy works as Top Girls, Cloud Nine, Mad Forest and many others. Many of them received their American premieres at the New York Theatre Workshop, which is also presenting this play that debuted at London’s Royal Court Theatre.
Unfortunately, for all the daringness of its conceit, Love and Information is more numbing than illuminating about its titular themes. Resembling a series of half-baked ideas hastily jotted down in a notebook, it offers more potential than substance.
Veering from the comic to the tragic, the theatrical sketches are often frustratingly amorphous. Such moments as when a patient who’s been given a fatal diagnosis asking her doctor how long she has to live, a young woman informing her brother that she’s actually his mother, and a woman trying to explain the concept of physical pain to someone who can’t feel any deliver situations fraught with drama left unexplored.
Others, such as a man boasting about the virtues of his virtual girlfriend (shades of Spike Jonze’s recent film Her) or a waiter delivering countless linguistic variations of the word “table,” feel like undeveloped comedy sketches.
Certainly there’s no faulting the ingenious staging by James Macdonald or the endlessly versatile performances by the large ensemble composed of such estimable performers as Randy Danson, Jennifer Ikeda, Karen Kandel, Kellie Overbey, Maria Tucci, James Waterston and others. The action takes place within a gleaming white cube, with the quicksilver scene changes happening as if by magic. The soundtrack during the blackout transitions--ranging from The Simpsons theme music to industrial noises to the sound of babies crying—often humorously relate to the action.
Considering the sheer volume of the situations presented, it’s not surprising that some of them are amusing, moving or piquant. But few are memorable. The evening, running nearly two numbing hours, feels like the theatrical equivalent of a meal composed entirely of single bites from different dishes. It may fill you up, but it isn’t very satisfying.
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane. 800-982-2787. www.ticketmaster.com. Through March 23.
Laura Esterman and Keith Randolph Smith in Intimacy
For a play that features, among other things, masturbation, ejaculations, fellatio, anal sex, suggestions of incest and frottage—look up that last one if you need to—Thomas Bradshaw’s Intimacy is remarkably wholesome.
Indeed, by the time this ribald comedy presented by The New Group reaches its conclusion, all of its characters are in a state of blissful harmony despite the profusion of sexual and racial tensions that have previously threatened to rend them apart.
It concerns three families living near each other in an upscale suburban town. Widower James (Daniel Gerroll) is still grieving for his late wife but finds himself consumed with sexual thoughts despite his stern religiosity. His sex-obsessed teenage son Matthew (Austin Cauldwell), an aspiring filmmaker, voyeuristically spies on Janet (Ella Dershowitz), the sexy girl next door, even while beginning a sexual relationship with Sarah (Dea Julien), the daughter of Fred (David Anzuelo), a contractor who pleasures himself to gay porn. Finally, there are Janet’s parents, bi-racial couple Jerry (Keith Randolph Smith) and Pat (Laura Esterman), whose healthy sex life has apparently inspired their daughter to become a porn actress.
Playwright Bradshaw has repeatedly stated in interviews that he doesn’t consider himself a provocateur, but the assertion seems disingenuous considering this work’s endless representations of sex and bodily functions as exuberantly staged by director Scott Elliott. Full-frontal nudity and graphic sex abounds, and only the most discerning, or close-up, will be able to differentiate the prosthetic penises from the real ones.
When he first learns that his daughter is posing in such magazines as Barely Legal, Jerry is aghast. But he soon finds himself indulging in sexual fantasies about her, even while sarcastically asking, after she comes home from work, “Did you have some nice orgasms?” His sexually liberated wife is far more supportive, arguing that their daughter having sex in front of a camera is simply “a career choice.”
The virginal Sarah won’t allow Matthew to have intercourse with her, but she happily uses his bodily fluids as a medicinal cream for her acne-plagued skin. Meanwhile, he comes to embrace his bi-sexuality after being graphically propositioned by her father.
Resembling nothing so much as a network sitcom if the censors had all been sent packing, the play ultimately centers on Matthew’s deciding to make an all-frottage porn film starring Janet and his father, the latter of whom gleefully sheds his inhibitions after becoming besotted by the comely young woman.
Making the hardly revelatory point that we’re all capable of extreme licentiousness under the right circumstances, the play, for all its graphicness, lacks the anarchic wit that would make it truly thought provoking. It mainly comes across as begging for attention, like a pathetic flasher trying to be caught.
The performers, ranging from such veteran pros as Gerroll, Esterman and Smith to the younger newcomers, are certainly game for anything, shedding their clothes and dignity in strained attempts to induce laughs and gasps. To their credit, they sometimes succeed, but in such moments as when Smith’s harried Jerry takes a relaxing toilet break to the auditory accompaniment of loud farting sounds, it’s hard not to feel sorry for them.
Ultimately, the play is far less than the sum of its, um, parts. Its relative tameness is illustrated when a scene from the notorious porn film Deep Throat is shown on a television monitor. Watching Linda Lovelace perform her trademark sexual act--and it’s impossible not to, despite the live actors onstage-- one is reminded of an earlier time when it was still possible to be genuinely shocked.
Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St. 212-239-6200. www.telecharge.com. Through March 8.