All the Way and Southern Hospitality

President Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas is known for escalating the Vietnam War in the sixties. All the Way shows us Johnson before that, when he recognized that he would make his mark by ushering in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with Martin Luther King, Jr. (movingly played by Brandon J. Dirden, who does an exact rendering of MLK’s voice). Robert Schenkkan’s play is prescient, as a discriminatory voter suppression law in Wisconsin was just this week struck down as unconstitutional.

Bryan Cranston’s LBJ is a non-stop powerhouse of stories, craft, and passion. Cranston gives a master class in how to pull strings, wheedle your way with detractors, stab people in the back (Johnson would not congratulate MLK on his Nobel Peace Prize), and gloat over any tiny victory. With his sincere Midwestern VP, Hubert H. Humphrey (superbly acted by Robert Petkoff), they made a formidable pair. Betsey Aidem is super as Katharine Graham and does as much as she can with the oddly retro role of Lady Bird. Rob Campbell and Richard Poe do those rapscallians, George Wallace and Everett Dirksen, to the hilt. William Jackson Harper is a standout as Stokely Carmichael.

Like the strong cast, the set and staging are marvelous. Within Senate-like seating, often occupied by the players keeping watch, a small stage works marvels, including chillingly exhuming the body of a civil rights worker murdered in the Mississippi Burning, against a Johnson campaign speech. While other theatrical productions have used video to tell the story, this time it really works, with live performance feeds and archival footage, including Johnson’s swearing in on Air Force One.

All the Way is part one of a trilogy that Robert Schenkkan is perfecting at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We’re looking forward to part two. All the Way shows a leader revealing his mind and soul. It’s not a criticism, but the ending reminded us of an equally ambitious history play last season about Ann Richards, Ann by Holland Taylor. At the end, Taylor stands at the edge of the stage and delivers her last, deeply personal story of the night. It was a delicious nightcap that sent the audience out in tears after thunderous applause. Cranston’s version of that, delivered with remarkably realistic tears, left the audience cheering wildly, however dry-eyed. But then Robert Caro, too, has had a hard time wrapping up the story of LBJ.

Memphis ribs at Justin Timberlake's

You’d expect a suave, swank product out of the artist who gave us “Suit and Tie,” but Justin Timberlake’s rustic restaurant reveals his Texas roots. The signature drink is a refreshing tequila cocktail called the 901, the area code of Memphis, with muddled mint, raspberry and agave. If you like meat, you will love the main course: spareribs brushed with smoky BBQ sauce or dry-rubbed. One of the sides is mac and cheese and another collard greens—clearly very fresh collard greens but overly seasoned. With all the strong flavors in the rest of the meal, greens could be served on the bland side. Chopped salads and the desserts (especially Grandma Sadie’s bourbon pecan pie) looked great at a distance. 

Southern Hospitality began on the Upper East Side, but found its true following when it moved to Hell’s Kitchen. It’s packed out with a young business crowd every weekday at lunch and, particularly, on weekends for a brunch that includes limitless bellinis and mimosas for $15. A bluegrass band plays on Sundays. We expected to hear Justin Timberlake on the soundtrack, but didn’t. Timberlake doesn’t want to hear his own music at his restaurant. That’s how cool he is. Words lining the room are taken from a jam session at Sun Record Studios in Memphis in 1956, with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. Manager Josh Livesay, pictured, impressed upon us how genuine the whole enterprise is, recommended the fabulous dry-rubbed ribs, and said the cornbread is extraordinary.