NetworkNational Theatre ProductionBryan Cranston
Credit: Jan Versweyveld

Network (stage play)

When Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet’s Network hit movie theaters in November 1976, it zapped audiences like a lightning bolt of fire and brimstone. They also howled with laughter… probably because back then they still could. The film was “mad as hell”, no doubt about it. But it was also so outlandish and wildly exaggerated as a satire of the narcotic circus of American television that moviegoers had no idea what they were watching would one day seem eerily prescient. Who’s laughing now?

In a way, a stage version of Network was inevitable. Not only because of its timeliness in our current Fox News/reality TV howling 24-hour freak-and-geek-show era, where people will do anything or say anything for fame and ratings. But also because Chayefsky’s screenplay always seemed more tailored for the stage than the movies. Chayefsky was a genius — piercingly insightful, torrentially eloquent, smart as a thousand whips — but his dialogue (and especially his monologues) always smacked of a certain kind of grandstanding staginess. His characters talk at one another more than to one another.

All of which brings us to the play that has now finally arrived from London’s West End and landed with a clap of thunder at the Belasco Theatre. Directed by Ivo van Hove, the envelope-pushing provocateur behind the Broadway productions of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge and The Crucible, Network is bound to be one of the hotter tickets of the season thanks to the electric star power of Bryan Cranston. But a feel-good evening at the theater, it’s not. Yes, the Breaking Bad actor, who originated the role of “mad prophet of the airwaves” Howard Beale on stage at the National (and won an Olivier Award for the effort), is absolutely hypnotic. But van Hove’s overly busy production can’t match the bareknuckle force of his leading man’s performance.

Whenever Cranston isn’t on stage, the show tends to feel a bit didactic. And some of van Hove’s flashy, fourth-wall-breaking technical daredevilry feels distracting and oddly pointless. For example, before the show even starts, the actors can be seen stretching and preparing on the darkened stage as French disco music plays. Why? And for some reason there’s a smattering of café tables on the side of the stage, where a handful of deep-pocketed theatergoers can fork over between $299 and $399 for the privilege of eating during the show. Again, other than to make some extra dough at the gate, why? Still, despite all the clever-boy trickery and meta window dressing, at least there’s the show itself, which remains as arsenic-potent as the day it was written. After all, we all seem to be “mad as hell” in 2018.

Set at the flailing UBS television network in the mid-1970s, where the snoozy TV news division is hemorrhaging money, Network is a toxic three-handed message play revolving around an old-school stentorian news anchor (Cranston’s Beale) who’s in the midst of a nervous breakdown as retirement approaches; Beale’s long-time drinking pal and producer Max Schumacher (Scandal’s Tony Goldwyn), who’s stuck in the dinosaur notion that news is an honorable public service that comes with certain high-minded responsibilities; and an ambitious, amoral female programming whiz named Diana Christensen (Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany), who would sell her soul to Satan (or William S. Paley) if it meant higher ratings and a bigger audience share.

That’s a pretty good cast, right there. But I suspect a lot of people are still going to go to the show with the images of Peter Finch, William Holden, and Faye Dunaway forever etched in their brains. Only Cranston manages to make you totally forget about his big-screen predecessor. Goldwyn is a fine actor, but he doesn’t have the jaded, permanent-ulcer crustiness of Holden. And Maslany, as voracious and amped-up as she is, always feels like she’s trying too hard to impersonate Dunaway — a role, for the record, that has not aged well since we’ve thankfully graduated past the time when ambitious women were seen as castrating threats to male corporate dominance… um, right?

The action more or less begins with Beale having a meltdown on air while delivering the nightly news. After being attended to by a swarm of technicians and makeup people and being counted down, he reads the top story about Patty Hearst being captured. Then he looks into the camera and matter-of-factly announces that he’s retiring because of poor ratings and that, a week from tonight, he will blow his brains out on live TV. All hell breaks loose. And the chaos is palpable because van Hove has armed a bunch of the TV production assistants on stage with handheld cameras that simulcast different angles of the action onto the giant screen behind the action. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to look.

Beale’s on-air freakout turns him into an overnight sensation. So much so that the ratings-starved network wants to put him back on the air and see what he’ll do next. This is where Maslany’s Diana sees her opening, egging Beale on to crazier and crazier flights of televised lunacy, preaching to his living-room congregation like an unhinged messiah. Meanwhile, Goldwyn’s Max tries to be the voice of sanity when he’s not locking horns with Diana — or falling into bed with her. But even their lovemaking feels like a lecture about corporate greed.

There’s no question that Network is a sickeningly timely evening of theater. But whenever Cranston wasn’t on stage, I had to keep reminding myself why I loved the movie so much. Was it always this preachy? Whether you like them or not, van Hove has knocked himself out adding high-tech filigrees to the production (cameras, cameras everywhere!). But the one place where he should have shaken things up more is with Lee Hall’s too-faithful adaptation of Chayefsky’s script. All of those beautifully worded harangues haven’t aged well. Yes, Network’s message is as urgent and fresh and prophetic as it was back in 1976. But too often, coming out of its actors’ mouths in 2018, it feels every bit of 42 years old. B

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