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Better than Bryan Cranston? Star of South Coast Rep's 'All the Way' delivers a most convincing LBJ

There should be a special award for when one actor wins the Tony, but then another actor still finds a way to kill the role — to act the heck out of it and to make it new. I'd nominate Hugo Armstrong, who stars as Lyndon Baines Johnson in Robert Schenkkan's Tony-winning "All the Way" at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

Bryan Cranston played LBJ on Broadway, won the Tony and is nominated for an Emmy in the HBO movie adaptation. For rapturous critics and enthusiastic audiences, Cranston was LBJ.

Not so fast, retorts Armstrong, walking around in his cowboy boots in director Marc Masterson's ambitious, if not entirely successful, "All the Way" revival.

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First, Armstrong looks a lot like Johnson. A slender man with human-sized features, he's been fitted with a prosthetic belly under his suit, along with a large prosthetic nose and even larger prosthetic ears. I'm on the fence about the nose and ears. They seem a little condescending to the audience, as if without them, we'd spend three hours whispering with bewilderment to one another, "Who's he supposed to be?"

And yet that nose and those ears really do put the finishing touches on Armstrong's uncanny impersonation: He's tall and gangly, larger than anybody else onstage. (The way he looms over the timid Hubert Humphrey, played by J.D. Cullum, is especially amusing.) Armstrong’s LBJ stands and moves with the awkward, restless energy of an overgrown child still getting used to his size.

Schenkkan was clearly determined to present all the shades and contradictions of a famously complex figure, and Armstrong inhabits them persuasively: Johnson's enthusiasm, bullying, bursts of wrath, off-color remarks, folksy Texan turns of speech and the conspiratorial twinkle in his eye. He owns the stage.

The story begins in the hectic aftermath of John F. Kennedy's assassination, shortly after Johnson has taken the oath of office. Nearing the end of a miserable vice-presidency, during which he was snubbed and sidelined by the upper-crusty Kennedy administration, he suddenly becomes the president. But the next presidential election is only 11 months away. Johnson has to take charge of the shocked and grieving country while campaigning to keep the job.

In his first speech, Johnson promises to pass Kennedy's Civil Rights Act, which has been languishing in Congress. Johnson's fellow Southern politicians, the Dixiecrats (amusingly lampooned by Bo Foxworth, Hal Landon Jr. and Larry John Meyers), who hang out together chomping on cigars and making racist remarks, can't fathom what he's up to. The liberals in the Cabinet consider Johnson well-intentioned but naive. Activists Martin Luther King Jr. (Larry Bates), Stokely Carmichael (Christian Henley) and Ralph Abernathy (Rosney Mauger) are impressed but distrustful. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Robert Curtis Brown), evil incarnate, tries to undermine the whole thing by tape-recording King's adulterous liaisons.

The play moves quickly, in brief scenes of rapid-fire conversation that  demonstrate Johnson's tactical skills as he flatters, bribes, confuses and browbeats competing factions in the distinctive persuasive assault that was known as the "Johnson treatment."

Most of the action takes place in the Oval Office, represented by a gigantic desk in the middle of Ralph Funicello's set, an amorphous space ringed with classical columns that hold up a balcony. When Johnson is making a call on the funny-looking green telephone carried around by his top aide, Walter (Darin Singleton), his interlocutor replies from between the columns or on the balcony. Sometimes,  captions are projected on the set to identify the characters, but we're mostly meant to sort out who's who through the dialogue, which is therefore loaded, often beyond capacity, with exposition. 

"You talkin' about Strom Thurmond?" Johnson asks a friend who has just made a veiled allusion. "I hear the good senator from South Carolina's been making noises about switchin' parties and goin' Republican."

Such identifications are certainly useful when there are so many characters to identify. (All the actors besides Armstrong and Bates play multiple roles, impressively varying their suits, accents and the rates at which they chomp cigars.) But the dialogue can take on the stilted, didactic feel of a school play.

We follow the Civil Rights Act's progress through Congress with scrupulous historical accuracy, as it gets bogged down in committees and weakened by compromise, but then oddly enough, the moment when it (apparently) passes is so confusing that I had to rely on my sketchy understanding of U.S. history to decide if it had happened or not.

By the second act, the script has gotten overwhelmed by its commitment to reporting so many blips in Johnson's bid for election. He has to eliminate his Democratic competition, Gov. George Wallace (Jeff Marlow), as well as the Republican Barry Goldwater (who doesn't appear), and it should all be very exciting except that time slows down. The production that had us leaping from "11 Months to the Election" to "7 Months to the Election," according to projected captions, starts trudging from "40 Days to the Election" to "37 Days to the Election." And it's nearing 11 p.m. in real life.

On one of these final days, the president tells wife Lady Bird Johnson (Nike Doukas) that she will make history as the “first first lady to campaign on her own!" After she says she can’t do speeches, the president simply replies, "Well, it's high time you learned,” and, “Go ahead, get packed!" Problem solved.

On another day, Johnson learns that his longtime aide, Walter, has been arrested in a men's room and accused of indecency. Johnson is stunned and heartbroken — then cuts poor Walter loose. Who's going to hold the green phone now? We never find out.

It's not that these events aren't fascinating. Schenkkan just has included too many of them, and each gets little more than the most cursory treatment. Masterson's rigorous and thoughtful direction can't make up for the pacing problems.

Choosing just one year of Johnson's presidency seems like an act of writerly restraint until you realize that each day contains enough suspense, emotion and character development for its own play. A narrower focus, even if that meant losing some details, could keep the audience engaged all the way to the end.

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‘All the Way’

Where: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7 p.m. Sundays (check for exceptions). Ends Oct. 2.

Tickets: $30-$84

Info: (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org

Running time: 3 hours.

Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.

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