On the first day of rehearsals for Network, director Ivo van Hove told his Broadway company that the play’s story — at least when Paddy Chayefsky wrote it for Sidney Lumet’s Oscar-winning 1976 film — was intended as satire. He then added that, a little more than 40 years later, we’re now all living it. America has caught up to Network: mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore.
Seeing such rage play out on stage feels cathartic — at least to Bryan Cranston. Last year at the National Theatre in London, the award-winning actor, 62, originated the stage incarnation of Howard Beale, an anchorman who, unable to cope with the social and economic changes around him, has a live on-air meltdown. “I remembered the character indelibly when Ivo pitched the idea to me, but I went back over the themes of the story,” recalls Cranston, who won an Olivier Award (the British equivalent of a Tony) for the role. (Cranston is also a Tony winner for Best Actor for All the Way, the play in which he starred as President Lyndon B. Johnson) “It’s pretty remarkable, one day after another after another, realizing, ‘This is of our time.'”
Chayefsky’s story about media manipulation and the blurred lines of fact and fiction is mostly unchanged in the now-’70s-set stage version. But director van Hove has added an innovative modern twist for 2018 audiences: Live cameras spin around the stage, documenting Beale’s breakdown on a giant screen with the immersive immediacy of a social media feed. And while the play stays faithful to the film’s depiction of a broadcast news network turning to absurdly sensational content, the new script by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) drives in the knife on the Trump-era advent of “fake news.” The more Cranston dissects the play, the more he’s increasingly stunned by its relevance. “[Chayefsky] wrote this in the ’70s — how remarkable that it holds true now,” he says. “It’s the desensitization of our society by seeing these violent images from across our screens, and how brutalizing it is to a citizenry.”
Cranston’s new castmates, replacing those he worked with in London, only echo the sentiment. Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) and Tony Goldwyn (Scandal) costar in the roles of programming director Diana Christensen and head of news Max Schumacher, respectively. As they’ve found the show’s rhythms in rehearsal, they both share the feeling that they’re working on something special. “The way that Ivo blends mediums in his work just feels so right here,” says Maslany, who’s making her Broadway debut. And Goldwyn, who debuted in 1995’s Holiday, points out that this Network feels like a direct response to the Trump era. “Playing Max, I feel the way I felt on Nov. 9, 2016,” says Goldwyn. “I’m wondering, ‘What world do I live in?'”
But for Cranston, it’s the emotional power of Network that ends up giving the play such visceral force. “We’re less civil with each other than we used to be,” he says. “We’re getting out our anger in such dispiriting ways — the vitriol and the rancor are unlike everything I ever remember growing up.” Therein lies the power of bringing Network to the States. “When I’m on stage screaming, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ the audience is going to go, ‘Oh my God,'” Cranston predicts. “They’ll scream it out with us.”