Saturday, April 19, 2014

Politics Is Drama: All The Way at the Neil Simon Theatre and Camp David at Arena Stage

The popularity of Peter Morgan's play Frost/Nixon has led other dramatists to examine pivotal moments in American History without resorting to the tedium of the cradle to grave biography of an historical figure. For the 2013-2014 theatrical season two Presidents have been given this treatment. Lyndon Baines Johnson is brought to life in All The Way, which purports to examine the political maneuvers behind the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but in reality it is more focused on Johnson's bid to win the election in 1964 banishing from him the label of accidental president. Jimmy Carter's highest achievement, brokering peace between Egypt and Israel in September 1978 is given similar treatment. Both plays have thoughtful dramatic moments that help them rise above the political history lessons at the heart of their texts. Both plays also suffer from structural flaws that keep them from being completely satisfying dramas.

All The Way was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012 as part of its American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle. It was given a pre-Broadway run at the American Repertory Theater before opening on Broadway in March 2014. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Robert Schenkkan, it takes its title from LBJ's 1964 campaign slogan "All The Way With LBJ." Covering the period from the assassination of John F. Kennedy to election night 1964 All The Way is structured in such a way to give insight into how this Texan democrat, master of the political give and take from his years of service in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, manages to pull together the votes to pass the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and use his political muscle to win election as President by a landslide vote.

Staged by director Bill Rauch on Christopher Acebo's set which evokes both a legislature and the courtroom of history All The Way manages to make those in the audience who are familiar with history actually question how it will come to pass. Where All The Way falters is in its sprawling cast of secondary characters which are difficult to keep straight even with the help of projections telling the audience who is who during heated debates.

The most compelling secondary story involves Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his efforts to maintain control over the fracturing civil rights groups, particularly the younger less patient student groups. The attempted undermining of King's credibility by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover is portrayed bringing to mind modern day parallels to the NSA's monitoring of ordinary Americans. Brandon J. Dirden is spot on with the lilting cadence of Dr. King's voice, yet is simply not an imitation of the saintly martyr of history. Mr. Dirden makes Dr. King all too human, a statesman who has his faults.

All The Way pays mere lip service to the women portrayed. Lady Bird Johnson (Betsy Aidem) is simply the supporting spouse stereotype in the mold of the early seasons of Mad Men. Coretta Scott King (Roslyn Ruff), Lurleen Wallace and Muriel Humphrey (Susannah Schulman as both ladies) serve as one dimensional characters not given any real material to flesh their stories out. Each of the actresses portrays more than one character, but only Ms. Ruff is given any compelling material in her brief scenes as Fannie Lou Hamer, SNCC Organizer whose dramatic testimony at the Democratic Convention nearly derails LBJ's careful political plans.

Bryan Cranston as LBJ gives a performance that is as large, coarse and brassy as the real LBJ. At first it feels like a caricature, the physicality Mr. Cranston chooses as well as the vocal choices seem exaggerated until you realize that it is a spot on portrayal of the real man, right down to his habit of smacking his lips as he speaks. Mr. Cranston dominates the three hours on stage as LBJ was a dominating personality during his five years as President of the United States.

President Jimmy Carter is a quieter, gentler presence in the world premiere production of Lawrence Wright's Camp David at Arena Stage in Washington, DC.  That is how it should be as the political maneuvers by President Carter to get two men, Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar Sadat to agree to the impossible, peace between their countries and a solution to the problems in the entire middle east.

Camp David is a more intimate affair all around than the larger in scope and running time All The Way. A mere 90 minutes in length and using only four major characters, Camp David narrowly focuses on the primary players in those crucial thirteen days of tense negotiations that astonishingly resulted in the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt that is still in effect today.

Walt Spangler creates a set that brings to mind the peaceful seclusion that is the presidential retreat in western Maryland. Molly Smith's direction keeps the story moving at a pace that gives the drama its due. The focus remains on the four characters as it should.

The three men that history has rightly honored for their peace efforts are brought to life on stage in ways that subtly help the audience understand both the historical strife between these nations and the complex nature and, in the cases of Begin and Sadat, the more unsavory aspects of their backgrounds. Richard Thomas is congenial with an iron will as President Carter. Ron Rifkin plays Begin with caution and reserve, ever careful with words and emotions, cautious in his dealings with his country's enemy. Khaled Nabawy has Sadat's charm and magnetism and his urgent passion for wanting to leave the legacy of peace and the potential political costs of his goals. All of the mens' deep faith is incorporated into the story, which gives a deeper understanding to all of their characters.

The fourth member of this intimate drama is Rosalynn Carter. The definition of steel magnolia has never been as apropos as here in the capable hands of Hallie Foote. Unlike in All The Way this first lady is crucial to the success of the story. Yes, Rosalynn is the supporting spouse and the sounding board for her husband's frustrations. Yet, at critical moments it is Rosalynn who diffuses tensions, offering moments of clarity to each of the other participants.

Where Camp David falters is in making the drama so intimate that some of the challenges behind the historic peace agreement get lost by only being referred to in a few sentences here, a scurried moment there. Perhaps in a subsequent production this could be addressed by adding a composite aide for both Begin and Sadat to give the viewpoint of those who either favored or more importantly did not favor the peace accords.

All The Way is being performed at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway through June 29, 2014. For tickets and other performance information please visit or Camp David is being performed in the Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage in Washington DC through May 4, 2014. For tickets and other performance information please visit

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