Saturday, March 8, 2014

Bryan Cranston!

Last weekend my wife and I went to see All the Way, the play about Lyndon B. Johnson that just opened on Broadway. The show has gotten a lot of press because it stars Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame. I love this actor. I’ve never seen anyone do such a remarkable job of combining funny and scary. His Breaking Bad character, Walter White, is a totally pathetic clown in some episodes and a stone-cold monster in others. And sometimes he manages to be both at the same time. (SPOILER ALERT: I’m thinking of the scene where Walt shot Mike, in the fifth season. It was so stupid and petty of him.)

I’m happy to report that Cranston does an equally fine job of portraying LBJ in this new play. It would be so easy to play the 36th president as a caricature, either a goofy Southern good ol’ boy or a boring Tragic Figure, but Cranston deftly sidesteps both traps. His LBJ is amazing. You have to see it to believe it.

The problem is the rest of the play. It’s written like a high-school history lesson, an earnest, dumbed-down summary of the civil rights movement and the 1964 presidential election. Cranston’s performance is so good that you don’t really notice the play’s flaws when he’s talking. But when the other actors open their mouths, watch out! It was particularly painful to listen to the guy who played Hubert Humphrey, who was portrayed as a naive idiot. This was jarring, because I distantly remember watching Humphrey on TV when I was a kid. He was an idealist, but he wasn’t an idiot.

While my wife and I were talking about the play afterwards, she asked if I could think of any novels that had a similar problem -- the main character is rendered exceptionally well, but the rest of the book is just so-so. I drew a blank at first. Then I started to formulate a theory. In most first-person or close third-person novels, I said, the main character is so intimately tied to the narration that it’s hard to separate the two. A character is excellent because his/her narration is excellent, and vice-versa. But in a book with multiple points of view, it’s very possible that an author could do a great job with one or two characters and much worse with the others. Then I tried to think of an example to back up my point.

I’m still thinking.


  1. I am reading "The Orphan Master's Son," which won the Pulitzer. The main character is a North Korean living in North Korea. The book has been fascinating and well-written. But where I am now the MC has traveled with a delegation to Texas for an informal meeting. The Americans strike me as unrealistic. Not complete buffoons, but also not particularly savvy about foreign relations. I find it hard to believe that would actually happen, so I'm starting to lose interest.

  2. In strictly personal terms, Mark, I am trying to correct the problem you describe in a novel of my own. I just got an outside editor's take on the story, and she said this: most things work here, except you make the reader spend far too much time with the bad guy. In so doing, you diminish the main character, etc. I went back and looked at the manuscript--she couldn't have been more right. I hate cookie-cutter, two-dimensional characters, including heavies. But by lavishing too much attention on mine, I made him crowd out what was more important.

  3. I've read books with multiple points of view where I couldn't identify with a single character. Yes, there may be a protagonist of sorts but too much head hopping can lead to a lack of emotional depth. The way this is done well is when each switch brings you deep into the head of the next person. Then you can't wait to see what happens.