Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Playwright Focuses on Lbj's First Year in the Presidency

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Playwright Focuses on Lbj's First Year in the Presidency

Article excerpt

President Obama has been criticized for not sweet-talking or strong-arming members of Congress to get in line behind his legislative proposals.

If you want to see how those skills were masterfully employed 50 years ago, they're on view at the Neil Simon Theatre, where "All the Way," a dramatization of Lyndon's Johnson's first year as president is in previews for an opening Thursday night. Bryan Cranston portrays Johnson.

"That year, 1963-64, was so damn important," said playwright Robert Schenkkan. "It changed everything in this country, and we're still feeling the impact today." He ticked off some of the landmark achievements of Johnson's presidency, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 1965 Voting Rights Act, Medicare, immigration reform, the Clean Air Act.

Schenkkan, who was an actor (Lieutenant Commander Dexter Remmick in "Star Trek: The Next Generation") before turning his full attention to writing, said Johnson had a unique opportunity to shape his presidency after John F. Kennedy's assassination.

"Everybody was wondering, 'What does he want? What's his game?' "

That this middle-of-the-road Texas politician chose to use his considerable powers of persuasion and intimidation to press one of the most liberal social agendas in American history, while asserting the authority of the federal government, is no more paradoxical than the man himself.

"He was this extraordinarily complicated person," said Schenkkan, 60. "You find people who say he was the most brilliant man they ever met, and other people who say he was the most awful man they'd met."

He said it was important to find an actor who could persuasively encompass Johnson's contradictory qualities: generosity and pettiness, compassion and mean-spiritedness.

"When we began to think about Broadway, we knew we needed someone who had marquee value, but also someone who had the acting chops. He had to be appealing and funny, but also able to turn utterly ruthless and terrifying. It was a pretty short list. …

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