The Johnson who emerges at the Neil Simon Theatre is ferocious and vulgar, likely to grab you by your throat and toss off a disgusting joke or throw around four-letter words. In Bryan Cranston's hands, he's completely irascible—and one of the highlights of the Broadway season.
Robert Schenkkan's play, which opened Thursday with two dozen actors portraying some 40 characters, opens on a plane moments after Johnson has been sworn in after President John F. Kennedy's assassination and takes us up to his election win in November 1964.
Along the way, LBJ tries to push through civil rights legislation and juggle his own campaign as Southern Democrats rebel. Over its sprawling three hours, the play also explores Martin Luther King Jr.'s attempts to keep his movement from fragmenting, the growing war in Vietnam and a snooping FBI led by J. Edgar Hoover.
Cranston, fresh off his triumph as a drug kingpin in "Breaking Bad," shows what he can do in a Broadway debut, and it's astonishing. He looks nothing like Johnson, but no matter: Cranston, with his hair slicked back, his pants hiked up and in a pair of thick black glasses, stretches his rubbery face into a near-constant Johnson scowl and makes that good ol' boy accent run riot.
Watching Cranston bully, threaten, feel sorry for himself, compromise, bellow and turn the knife is a hoot, no matter which side of the aisle you sit. Like "House of Cards," the play explores the ugly sausage of politics and the gulf between the public and private politician.
"The politician's curse, see, is the desperate desire, the absolute need to plan for every contingency, anticipate every problem, to control everything, even as you know that's impossible," Johnson says.
Other standouts in the cast include an oily Michael McKean as Hoover, William Jackson Harper as a fiery Stokely Carmichael, Brandon J. Dirden as a sonorous King and Betsey Aidem, who makes the small part of Lady Bird Johnson a little jewel. Eric Lenox Abrams also gives a powerful demand for justice from a box seat as activist David Dennis.
The other real star here is director Bill Rauch, who keeps this jigsaw puzzle humming along. There are countless scenes and a staggering number of parts, and the action spills out into the aisles. But moments melt into the next flawlessly, and the main actors pivot seamlessly, often not waiting for the actors in the last scene to leave.
The set by Christopher Acebo helps: It's a semicircle of wooden seats, almost like a jury box, in which some actors wait for their next scene or use it to portray offices or the Senate or even a car and a ditch filled with bodies. There's even an Oval Office bed tucked inside that rolls out.
In an inspired touch, Rauch has turned presidential phone calls into something akin to watching a cockfight. Cranston's Johnson will put the call on speaker and then roam pugnaciously around the center of the stage as the hapless person on the other end sits under a spotlight. There's also a neat side-by-side moment when King is making his Nobel Price acceptance speech and Johnson shares the stage while making a campaign stop in New Orleans.
Schenkkan's script is a little crammed and nonstop frantic, but he ensures it never feels like a dry history lesson. In fact, there's a sequel in the works, and even after a three-hour tour here you'll be itching for more, especially if Cranston returns. Everyone's singing "Happy Days Are Here Again" in the final scene, but it feels vaguely like "Richard III" since we know what's coming.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits