Nobody can do a nervous breakdown like Bryan Cranston. As Howard Beale, long-time network news anchor gone mad, he sits in front of the camera, unable to speak, his face a dramatic repertoire expressing varying shades of reddened desperation. And that’s just one of Cranston’s many memorable moments in the Broadway production of Network, a largely humorless, tech-heavy adaptation by avant-garde director Ivo van Hove of the Oscar-winning 1976 film.
There is the moment when Cranston matter-of-factly announces during his nightly newscast that he has been fired from his long-time anchor job because of poor ratings, and “since this show was the only thing I had going for me in my life, I have decided to kill myself” — on-air the following Monday. And the moment when, cheerfully deranged, Cranston gets down off the stage, sits on an audience member, and puts his arm around her husband. Above all, there is the moment after his bosses have decided to keep mad Howard on the air because it will boost the network’s ratings, when he arrives at the TV studio in his underwear, angrily rants about a massive conspiracy, and urges his audience to shout aloud: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
Cranston, who became a star thanks to his Emmy-winning performance as chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin on AMC’s Breaking Bad, and convinced Broadway of his theater chops in his Tony-winning turn as LBJ in All The Way, is the reason to see Network at the Belasco. There aren’t that many other reasons.
The many producers of the play, which originated in the National Theatre in London, can’t be happy that Amazon Prime is currently showing the original film, for it shows up the shortcomings of the stage adaptation. Directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Paddy Chayefsky, the film is a sharp satire with a cast of heavyweights: Ned Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Peter Finch, William Holden. There is even a sly cameo by Kathy Cronkite, daughter of CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, as an abducted heiress who joins her terrorist captors in bank robberies. Her character figures in a subplot in the movie, in which the head of programming (Dunaway) of the network UBS hires the terrorists for a new TV series that will feature a weekly act of terrorism, be it bank robbery or abduction, that the terrorists themselves will film.
That subplot is eliminated from the stage adaptation, which is written by playwright Lee Hall (Billy Elliott, The Pitmen Painters) and is otherwise largely faithful to Chayefsky’s screenplay; Broadway’s Network is even set in the year the movie was released, 1976. But it is not a satire. That is in large measure because Chayefksy, writing before the advent of Reality Television and Fox TV and Sean Hannity and “fake news,” turned out to be prophetic. All his pointed exaggerations have come to pass – and worse.
But the Network on stage also eschews satire because that is not van Hove’s way.
The self-serious director, known to Broadway audiences for imposing his strong vision on two Arthur Miller plays — A View From The Bridge (which I liked), and The Crucible (which I didn’t) – goes in a different direction. Everything we see on stage we also see on screens – a big screen upstage, and other screens placed throughout the theater. We are also brought into the bustle of a TV studio, with glass-doored control room, and roaming videographers, and a constant stream of clashing multiple images flashing simultaneously, including 1970s TV commercials. It’s as if the world has become nothing but a series of screens (which is hard to dispute if you’ve ever looked up from your smart phone long enough to view your fellow commuters on theirs.)
Admittedly, the screens can be fun to watch; there are scenes that are better because of this approach. One is the encounter that begins outside the theater between Diana, the head of programming (the Faye Dunaway role now portrayed by Tatiana Maslany in her Broadway debut) and Max the head of the news division (the William Holden role, now portrayed by Tony Goldwyn.) That scene ends up with simulated sex between the two as Diana screams about market share – which sounds funny, but isn’t. (This May-December affair is one subplot that Hall could have eliminated without many complaints.)
Yet, if it may be true that our lives are now lived remotely via screens, that doesn’t mean our theater should be too. The video-intense production shares some of the same problems as the recent production of 1984. Whatever point is being made about the loss of humanity is accompanied by an apparent loss of interest in the humans. It can’t be a coincidence that the three principal performers of Network are all now best-known for their roles on television (Maslany for Orphan Black, Goldwyn for Scandal.) Yet only Cranston is allowed a three-dimensional performance.
The movie of Network is a treat, but it is unmistakably a period piece, full of paranoid conspiracy theory, which was so prevalent in the films of the 1970s that it constitutes a genre. Do we really need to revisit this genre on stage in 2018, when so many conspiracy theories these days are emanating from the White House?
Network is on stage at the Belasco (111 W 44th Street, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue,New York, NY 10036) through March 17, 2019. Tickets and details.
Network Written by Lee Hall, based on the screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky; Directed by Ivo Van Hove. Scenic and lighting design by Jan Versweyveld, costume design by An D’Huys, sound design by Eric Sleichim, video design by Tal Yarden. Featuring Bryan Cranston, Tatiana Maslany, Tony Goldwyn, Joshua Boone, Alyssa Bresnahan, Ron Canada, Julian Elijah Martinez, Frank Wood, Nick Wyman, Barzin Akhavan, Jason Babinsky, Camila Canó Flaviá, Eric Chayefsky, Gina Daniels, Nicholas Guest, Joe Paulik, Susannah Perkins, Victoria Sendra, Henry Stram, Bill Timoney, Joseph Varca, Nicole Villamil and Jeena Yi . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.